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Cell production and teamwork


Changes in quality control methods and technological advances in recent years have led to a revolution in production methods. This revolution has been given the name of lean production. This term covers a range of new methods and procedures, which will be examined and summarised in this section.

The purpose of lean production is to:

  • Improve quality and lower rejection rates
  • Increase productivity
  • Reduce the costs of production by cutting aspects such as waste

At the beginning of this topic we examined various production methods, such as job, batch and flow production. Problems occur with many of these. For instance, flow production may lead to issues of poor morale, motivation and efficiency, as specialisation eventually deskills jobs and reduces work to monotonous, repetitive and simple actions. Little judgement and responsibility is afforded the employee. To remain competitive, firms desire the production of quality product at as low a cost as possible. To ensure consistent and reliable quality, at a fair cost, traditional mass production has been replaced by alternative methods of managing and operating assembly lines. These include:

  • Cell production
  • Just-in-time (JIT) production

Cell production

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Cell production

Cell production is an important ingredient of lean manufacturing and refers to a manufacturing system where the workforce is divided into self-contained teams designed to complete a particular manufacturing process or product. The team is responsible for quality control and 'sells' the part-finished product to the next cell which is regarded as an 'internal customer'. Each member of the team is multi-skilled, allowing for greater flexibility in production through job rotation.

With cell production, assembly lines are broken down into groups of related activities, not individual ones. The cell is normally arranged in a 'U' or horseshoe shape. Each self-contained team (cell) is responsible for the completion of a product or specific process. Every member of the team is skilled at a number of roles, so providing an opportunity for job rotation. It is necessary to locate all the different equipment needed to manufacture the product together in the same production area.

The team is responsible for allocating specific roles, covering for absences and holidays, appointing their own supervisors, organising training and arranging their own breaks. They are responsible for the quality of the 'product' they pass to the next team, who are regarded as internal 'customers', which is a key element in the Kaizen approach to quality control. In effect, they operate their own little assembly factory. Each cell is responsible for a complete unit of work, which Herzberg identified as a method of job enrichment.

This method gives employees some say in their work; hence improving motivation and morale; they are less likely, therefore, to become bored by repetitive work. Those that want to can take responsibility. This form of team working has become increasingly popular as it combines the advantages of mass production with a human system, which is more motivating than the traditional assembly line.

Firms may go one stage further and train teams responsible for manufacturing the entire product - the teams then move around the plant or factory with the product and complete each stage of production. This should improve motivation as employees are empowered, resulting in quality benefits.

The objective of cell production is to enable greater flexibility to produce a high variety of low demand products, while maintaining the higher productivity of larger scale production.

Advantages of cell production:

  • stability of the team improves communication between the cell members
  • processes, defects, scheduling and maintenance can be managed more efficiently and cost-effectively
  • workers become multi-skilled and are consequently more adaptable and flexible to the changes in the business
  • seeing the product from start to finish may create greater 'pride' and job satisfaction
  • staff feel more involved in decision-making and the variety of work and greater responsibility generally results in better motivation
  • quality improves because each cell has 'ownership' over production and cells often aim for 'zero defects' and the elimination of waste ('Muda')
  • low stock requirements and minimal work-in-progress allows for the operation of a just-in-time (JIT) system
  • improved customer response time

Disadvantages of cell production:

  • may not allow firms to use their machinery as intensively as in flow production and output will be lower than mass production as a result
  • greater investment is required in new management and control processes, such as stock ordering
  • there may be rivalry between different cells and conflict may arise if one cell is left to wait for output from another


The following article from the engineering review magazine outlines not only a cell production system, but how this is being adapted to allow robots to take over the roles of human workers on the assembly line in the IHI group of companies in Japan. Follow the link below to view the article; then undertake the exercise.

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Prepare a short report explaining how it is becoming possible to apply industrial robots to

tasks that cannot easily be automated and which presently rely heavily on human workers.