Take It To The Top: Lean medical manufacturing and mountaineering

The Take It To The Top VICE Expedition team summited Kyrgyzstan's Point 5318 mountain on Monday.

On Tuesday, the team took a much-deserved, and necessary, break after summiting. Here's that message:

Rest day today. Sleeping, cooking horse meat pies, and reveling in the dirt and rocks that have become our home.

Yes, you read that correctly - horse meat pies. Moving right along ...

Here's the latest message sent today:

The team has split up. Four of us flirted with China yesterday to see if we could pick up some crab rangoon. JLo & Stolp summited and then camped out.

Google Earth image shows the team at the border with China.
This Google Earth image shows the route the Take It To The Top VICE Expedition team has taken through the Djangart region of Kyrgyzstan. The blue dots are location pings from the InReach satellite communicator. The blue dots that swing out to the right show the team's ascent and summit of Point 5318. The blue dot at the bottom is the team's most recent location where they say they "flirted with China"; its border is represented by the yellow line.

Take It To The Top and lean manufacturing practices

The rest of this post will look at how this team succeeded where others have failed. They accomplished the expedition's main objective through ultra-light, alpine-style climbing.

This climbing style, which involves not only climbing lighter but climbing smarter, is a work method that VICE Expedition team member and KMC mechanical engineer Austin Lines uses on the mountain as well as in the office along with the rest of the KMC team.

We were amazed to discover the similarities between the mountaineering team's ultra-light climbing style and the lean manufacturing and engineering practices we implement here at KMC Systems to design, develop and manufacture medical devices and instruments.

Single-push style and real-time build

One key to the team's success is their single-push style up the mountain.

Single push is summiting the mountain in however long it takes but not camping anywhere along the way. "If we get stuck, we’ll get stuck," Lines said, "but we’re not planning on sleeping out there."

How is this style applied to medical device manufacturing? A key reason for quality improvements in medical device manufacturing with lean tools is that devices are developed in real-time as opposed to being built to yield.

“If you have to build a robot to test, and you need one a day, you don’t build two, in case one fails,” KMC Systems Assembly Manager David Burns explains. “Addressing problems in real-time forces the manufacturing process to troubleshoot failure immediately versus later after the product is placed on a shelf.”

Success happens when you safely eliminate the option to be lazy.

The key word here is "safely". The VICE Expedition team didn't bring cozy tents and sleeping bags, but they did carry lightweight bivy sacks to travel smarter than not having any protection at all.

"Worst case: we need to survive the night out there, like a storm moves in and we can’t go any further," Lines said.

We also want to tackle medical device design, development and manufacturing in a single push rather than falling back on another machine if the first one fails.

“Lean tools and philosophy help make abnormal situations and defects stand out,” Burns said. “You don’t want to hide what’s wrong. You want it to surface and make it visual so it can be fixed immediately.”

Fixing problems immediately is safer than relying on a backup that will probably have the same problems as the first one.

Ultra-light/alpine style and eliminating Muda

Alpine style means the team climbed as lightweight as possible to be faster and more efficient.

"All the gear we’re bringing is designed to be lightweight. The bivy sack is super lightweight, very thin – as minimal protection as possible to stay alive," Lines said.

The advantages of following lean manufacturing practices include creating a higher quality product and service while saving time and money. One lean medical device manufacturing practice we follow is eliminating muda. Muda is a Japanese term meaning "waste".

"For many, Lean is the set of 'tools' that assist in the identification and steady elimination of waste (muda). As waste is eliminated quality improves while production time and cost are reduced," according to
Wikipedia's lean manufacturing page.

Ultra-light climbing and lean manufacturing both eliminate muda.

"One guy’s actually pulled some bolts out of his crampons cause he saw they weren’t necessary. So he lightened his crampons that way. We’re not bringing tents. We’re not bringing sleeping bags for the actual summit pushes. We’re only bringing one hiking pole each cause it is necessary to probe the snow and make sure you’re not going to hike in a pit, but two seems kind of unnecessary cause we all have pretty good balance. It frees up the other hand for an ice axe, so it’s smarter," Lines said.

A large part of the team's success summiting Point 5318 was choosing what not to bring based on the failed attempts of previous expeditions.

"One team brought table and chairs. I think that made them less mobile so they couldn’t move as quickly," Lines said. "They were camping on their summit attempts, then when bad weather rolls in they have to deal with that cause they’ve waited too long rather than get the weather window while it’s good."

In lean manufacturing and engineering, it can also take another set of eyes to decide what not to incorporate in a design.

"We’re very good at reviewing each other’s designs. Some people design and they don’t see this plate has a little extra cause they’ve changed some things. Other people see that right away so we’re very good at communicating with each other and having peer review sessions that help reduce waste and make sure that everything’s as it should be," Lines said.

Lightweight climbing doesn't necessarily mean less gear - it means bringing the right gear. 

"One team didn’t make it cause they didn’t bring enough gear – they brought too much of the wrong gear," Lines said, "They didn’t bring rock gear. Instead they brought amenities."

The Take It To The Top team brought the gear that was necessary for success. For example, mountaineers despise snowshoes, but they were essential to save time and energy on this expedition.

Lines explains:

Snowshoes are a big issue because nobody in the mountaineering or climbing community really likes snowshoes. You figure you can slog through it, but we are planning to bring snowshoes cause it’s gonna be late in the season, it’s going to be slushy and previous expeditions had trouble. We were able to contact a previous expedition and he told us to definitely bring snowshoes cause what could’ve taken them a few hours took them a whole day cause every step they kept sinking into the snow.

The team smartly focused on not only the tools of lean but the culture of lean to succeed, as well, rather than stick to what's always been done.

As the lean manufacturing Wikipedia page states, "One criticism of lean perennially heard among rank-and-file workers is that lean practitioners may easily focus too much on the tools and methodologies of lean, and fail to focus on the philosophy and culture of lean. The implication of this for lean implementers is that adequate command of the subject is needed in order to avoid failed implementations."

At KMC, we also promote the culture of lean as well as implement its techniques.

Sorting, caching, equipment and 5s

"5S is the name of a workplace organization method that uses a list of five Japanese words: seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu, and shitsuke.Transliterated or translated into English, they all start with the letter "S". The list describes how to organize a work space for efficiency and effectiveness by identifying and storing the items used, maintaining the area and items, and sustaining the new order," according to the 5S Wikipedia entry.

KMC Systems applies the 5S lean manufacturing principles to its workstations.
KMC Systems applies the 5S lean manufacturing principles to its workstations. Just as the Take It To The Top mountain climbers cached only the necessary gear, KMC stores only the necessary equipment at each medical device module workstation.

At KMC Systems, every piece of material used serves a specific function and reliability is a key factor. Lines relates that to their climbing method:

In my design, design principles dictate minimal waste so you’re not having extra material that the customer doesn’t want to pay for and that serves no purpose.

Same with climbing – everything has a function and we’re trying not to leave any waste, and we’re also trying to use everything that we have and only bring what we need to use. In terms of food, we don’t want to have extra food that we’re carrying along that’s not doing anything for us.

In terms of gear, everything serves one function so we’re not bringing an extra pair of crampons. We’re not bringing an extra ice axe or anything so everything has to be reliable. You’ve only got that one thing to serve that one purpose.

Also, at KMC Systems, all of the equipment is sorted and kept in its place at each workstation. In keeping with the lean manufacturing principle of 5S, KMC sorts, straightens, systematically cleans, standardizes and sustains each medical device workspace.

Upon arrival to base camp, the Take It To The Top expedition team sorted their gear and 
stashed food and gear caches along the route to increase efficiency.

Keeping caches in the right locations up the mountain prevents the team from having to carry everything up with them, just as keeping equipment at a lean workstation prevents hunting down the proper tools each time.

With just the right amount of food in each cache, the climbing team prevents waste, in the same way that KMC keeps just the right amount of equipment at each medical device workstation.

And finally, the team includes only the equipment they'll need in the cache to prevent carrying a heavier load than necessary and eliminate the extra time and effort of thinking about what they're going to use during the time they could be climbing. KMC Systems keeps only the necessary equipment for one module at that module's workstation, increasing productivity rather than wasting time figuring out what equipment to use.

"Coming from a lean work environment has definitely helped me reason things out and plan for the expedition cause I feel like everything I do here is making sure that the future of a product will be ok, so all of the design changes and design details have to be perfect so they can go into production," Lines said, "We’ve spent months planning this, and we’re just making sure that all the details are in place so that when we actually show up we can enjoy ourselves, and we don’t have to be stressed out and everything will just happen naturally."

It isn't easy being lean

Congratulations to the Take It To The Top VICE Expedition team on successfully summiting the previously unclimbed Peak 5318 in Kyrgyzstan.

Implementing lean practices helped them Take It To The Top of the mountain, and implementing lean manufacturing practices help KMC Systems take our clients' medical devices to the top throughout the whole design, development, manufacturing and support process that makes up the KMC360 program.

"It’s cool to see all of us work through what’s necessary and what’s unnecessary," Lines said, "That’s important in design too to work through what’s necessary and unnecessary and make those tiny little changes cause those tiny little changes when you’re hiking for miles or producing thousands of these machines they add up, so that little change could be very important."

It isn't easy being lean, though. Learn the challenges of lean manufacturing from our expert, David Burns.

Maybe we'll have more on the horse meat pie situation in a later post. Stay tuned!

Topics: KMC360, KMC Systems, medical device lean manufacturing, Take It To The Top, VICE Expedition