“Lean manufacturing” is a favorite buzzword of business conferences lately, and it’s easy for the uninitiated to be unclear on the difference between lean and mass manufacturing. In fact, they differ in many ways, from philosophy and business strategy to production models and company culture.

Lean manufacturing works on the principle of “work smarter, not harder,” and works to eliminate production waste; waste being anything that does not add any value to the final product. Common wastes include waiting time, processing, inventory, and leftovers. By eliminating waste, lean manufacturers are usually able to produce higher quality products in a shorter time.
Whereas mass manufacturing is based off of forecasts and sales, lean manufacturing works off of customer orders. This eliminates the need for warehouses, because little excess product is produced. This also keeps the company from having to sell products at a loss when they become obsolete. The most efficient lean manufacturers report more than twenty inventory turnarounds per year; most mass manufacturers report less than ten.

The culture of the two types of companies differs as well. The hierarchy of mass manufacturing companies is inflexible, and usually produces alienation between employees and managers. A lean manufacturing company has a flatter structure, and encourages broad employee participation, which creates a culture of mutual responsibility and open communication. Additionally, in mass manufacturing companies each employee tends to specialize in one area only, and only works on that particular machine or production area, while those in lean companies are widely cross-trained.

Industries that particularly benefit from lean manufacturing are usually those that exist in rapidly evolving markets or those that require a lot of know-how to produce a quality product. Technological manufacturers are one of those most fond of lean manufacturing, as a large inventory of product can quickly turn into a pile of obsolete junk as the industry changes. For example, a custom cable manufacturer could be left with reels of useless wire, or warehouses of out-of-date custom cable assemblies, which would have to be liquidated at a loss. Also, technological industries like cable assembly companies require a high level of skill from their employees to produce quality products, which can become extremely expensive under the specialist system in mass manufacturing.

Though both types of manufacturing produce results, lean manufacturing is considered more forward-thinking, and is becoming increasingly popular, particularly, as stated, in the technology industry. Although more and more companies are converting to lean manufacturing, large companies will continue to rely on mass manufacturing when quality is not a top priority and they can afford a small seasonal loss.