Toyota is generally credited with developing and articulating the basic principles and techniques of lean manufacturing back in the 1950s. Since then, companies in industries other than automotive have successfully implemented lean manufacturing and reaped the benefits of reduced waste, increased production efficiency, improved quality, and higher responsiveness to customer demand. For the most part, however, the pharmaceutical industry has lagged behind in this respect.
Pharmaceutical companies have been reluctant to adopt and implement lean manufacturing techniques due to skepticism that production solutions coming from the auto industry can’t really be successfully applied to the special conditions of the pharmaceutical industry. This fear is both justified and unjustified – the difference usually boils down to the use of qualified lean manufacturing consultants with industry-specific knowledge and experience. Here’s an apt illustration from another sector that closely parallels the final segment of drug manufacturing.
In an article titled “Lean Manufacturing for High-Speed Production” (, Wes Iverson underscored the necessity of using qualified consultants. First, he cited some startling statistics: 25% of companies that have implemented a lean manufacturing process (or Six Sigma) report “some progress”, but only a slim 2% report anything close to outstanding results—which means that almost 75% fall somewhere in the failure range. This doesn’t have to be the case, however.
Iverson then went on to give an example drawn from Scott Watson’s, a consultant with E2M, Inc., presentation at the Pack Expo Las Vegas 2009, a packaging-industry exhibition and conference. Iverson stated in his introductory abstract that “blindly following [lean manufacturing’s] precepts is unlikely to work for those running high-speed packaging lines”, Watson told the audience. “While all of the classic tools of Lean Manufacturing can be applied to achieve benefits on a high-speed line, the application of Lean concepts must be translated to fit the production environment.” And there is the take-away for drug companies: “the application of Lean concepts must be translated to fit the production environment” peculiar to pharmaceutical manufacturing.
Engineers at a juice-bottling company were “advised by Toyota experts to eliminate all of the conveyors between machines because classic Lean principles brand conveyors as excess and unnecessary,” a recommendation whose purpose was to promote “single-piece flow.” This recommendation was good in theory, but it failed to take into account “the differences between automotive production and packaging, not only in the speed of the line, but in the differences in materials being used.” The packaging materials used in the bottling plant were “highly variable, meaning that frequent stops [were] inevitable . . . much too often to stop the entire line for each occurrence.”
So the lean manufacturing techniques of “close-coupling” and “single-piece flow” had to be adapted to the special conditions of that particular high-speed packaging line. What had to be added into the lean manufacturing mix was an “appropriate amount of accumulation or buffer to accommodate the inevitable ‘micro-stops,'” but not so much that it amounted to waste. Using the right tools, including overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) techniques and computer simulation, engineers at the plant were able to modify and adapt lean techniques so that implementation at their plant was successful.
Iverson summed it up this way: “In general, those looking to deploy Lean in their plants must remember the differences between their own operations and those of Toyota.” Similarly, qualified lean manufacturing consultants with knowledge of and experience in the pharmaceutical industry can sometimes be the make-or-break ingredient in a successful lean manufacturing implementation for pharmaceutical companies.

To learn more about how lean manufacturing strategies can streamline your business and improve your bottom line, visit Smart Lean Manufacturing