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The Lean Journey: Material Flow Systems

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

By Ben Roush

If a significant amount of cost is associated with our material, then why does it seem to get managed last?

There is nothing more personal to our people then our material flow

processes on the shop floor. There it is, right next to our colleague’s lunch bucket or purse. Our people know, and understand, that material needs to be closest to the point of use. Also, that there should be a primary and secondary part presentation to separate the material handling function from on-service demand.

Everyone knows deep in their heart that the line should never be shut down for material flow systems. Material should be considered “manageable.”

To support an effective “engineered inventory” approach for your facility,

you must take the first step in designating appropriate areas for your material. This means a dock-to-dock comprehensive approach. You can never go wrong with a value stream mapping of the process, but you may have to break up the material or customer to get the whole thing done. 

The “plan for every part” strategy is a good place to start, and those inputs

can effectively support your MRP system, regardless of the application.

Do not forget to start at the operator cell and work your way back. Part

presentation at the cell is a great place to start. The primary/secondary

part presentation has to be in place so that we can support the operator

first, and then set the pitch and frequency for the material handling group. 

Make sure to remember that the material support group needs to be efficient as well. 

If you are transitioning into the world of tuggers, then see what can be done to add an extra trolley or shelf to give them more to do and increase their scope. Unfortunately, the material handlers in our buildings can be the most underutilized people we have.

If you don’t think so, then sample how often they move around the building without empty or full containers on their forklifts. Feel free to add as much non-value-added processing to them as you like. Remember, they are material handlers, not just fork truck drivers. 

Considering that these are usually a high seniority position, this may take

some coaching.  Now is the time to get started on this. The last thing we

want is the operator breaking down boxes, making labels, cleaning out

totes, etc... What we really want is our operators focused on making good


Natural replenishment vs. IT solutions

Good old-fashioned standard work, with routes and time studies, are still

the best tools available for us to use when improving our material flow

systems on the floor. There are many emerging IT solutions that companies

are putting in place, instead of developing and building the competencies of their materials group.

Are we asking for trouble if we move forward with some type of call and response software package, when we don’t have an effective materials group on the floor to begin with?

Natural replenishment can keep things simple as well. Do the math at the cell for your min/max, and then engage your material handlers to take away empties and bring them back full. It's simple enough – make one, take one, kind of thing. 

Another strategic issue we need to understand is manning levels that

support our production lines, or we could end up with more material then

we set up for.  Think about how many times the third shift reported that

they were short drivers, all night, and where full pallets of material showed

up at the cell. If this has happened to you – then you are not alone.

To run smooth, a well-balanced material flow strategy needs to be a “little bit hungry” all the time. If lines are not running smoothly, then you should always have some alternative work available for your materials group.

You may have noticed that I haven’t said anything about a pull system yet.

Typically, most of this work needs to be done long before you tune things up.

We at Dynamic Improvement Group are here to help you with shop floor

material handling challenges, and your “engineered inventory” approach. 

As we think about material flow systems, let’s consider the following


 Why do we accept a certain percentage of downtime for material support?

 Do we have the same amount of support on all three shifts?

 Can we do better in announcing the next changeover?

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