Mass recalls, congressional hearings, government investigations and potentially damaging lawsuits; it would be an understatement to say Toyota hasn't had the best of years so far. The discovery of brake malfunctions on the car maker's much-lauded Prius hybrid sparked a recall and fierce criticism from a number of sources.

Months down the line the storm is still raging and the furore has led business analysts to question the company's manufacturing practices - Toyota had previously been held up as an exemplar of lean manufacturing, a discipline that has since been adopted by numerous industries, including print. The important question is have Toyota's failings tarnished the reputation of lean manufacturing as an operating practice in the minds of other business leaders, or do the principles still stand firm?

Lean manufacturing, as the name suggests, is all about minimising waste, by such means as eliminating excess material waste and ensuring employees maximise their potential at all times. It's a cost-cutting initiative designed to boost profits and create an efficient modus operandi. In print, the plant that's at the forefront of lean manufacturing is News International's Newsprinters' Broxbourne site. The Hertfordshire plant, which prints The Sun, The Times and The Daily Telegraph, strives to minimise waste and enable all staff to boost their productivity levels. Despite being one of the world's largest print production sites, the plant is run as a tight ship, with every action accounted for through strict auditing procedures.

Newsprinters adopted lean manufacturing as epitomised by the 5Ss and 'single-minute exchange of die' (SMED). Originally from Japan, the 5Ss are sorting, straightening, shining (or systematic cleaning), standardising and sustainability. Sorting and straightening involve removing any tools deemed unnecessary and putting the remaining tools into an organised system so people know where they are. Shining is simply cleaning the plant and establishing a safe working environment. All staff at Newsprinters, whether they were the directors or the cleaners, don their scrubs to get the plant's appearance up to scratch.

The final two, standardising and sustainability, take longer to put into practice. These are long-term issues, which require staff engagement and discipline, and are areas that Newsprinters is constantly aiming to improve upon.

Time is money

Newsprinters also employs SMED, which is a makeready reduction exercise. This allows for the maximisation of capabilities at crucial moments during the production process by cutting waste. The critical moment for Newsprinters is overnight when the plant is printing at maximum capacity. The company analysed normal work practices and decided that preparation work for the next makeready could be achieved when working on the current one. This cut down on wasted time and allowed for greater throughput during the critical window. After three months of adopting this practice, the makeready time between print runs had been cut from 120 minutes to 50 minutes.

Steve Whitehead, operations director at Broxbourne, remains convinced that lean manufacturing should be applied by printing businesses of all sizes and that its use will continue to grow regardless of what happened at Toyota.

"Lean manufacturing will continue at Broxbourne and our aim is to get better and better," he says. "We haven't been exposed to the Toyota effect, but we have an objective to push on with lean manufacturing because it has huge benefits. Broxbourne has a strict health and safety policy, and if you create a clutter-free environment, you remove hazards and eliminate risk."

Given that Broxbourne invested in its presses and prints a staggering 20m to 25m newspapers per day, how does management ensure that the site maintains its productivity?

"The employees here are empowered to manage," responds Whitehead. "We involve them in decisions as people need to be inspired. It is a top-down and bottom-up approach. Everyone, from the cleaners to the print managers, is in the workshops ensuring good workplace organisation. It's people that make the difference. All of our presses are clean and lean manufacturing helps us maintain this. The extreme auditing means that workplace hazards are avoided. Tools are readily available and labelled and everything is in place," he adds.

The tools at Broxbourne are micro-managed. Every item, whether it is a simple screwdriver to high-maintenance, costly equipment is accounted for in its tough auditing process. For some people this may seem a bit much, but Mark Houghton, stock control manager at Woolwich-based large-format printer SMP Group, dismisses claims that strict auditing methods could be construed as being intrusive.

"People will always be suspicious about snooping, but once workers see the benefits, it will be accepted," he says. "Printers need to get past their old-school thoughts and adopt these techniques. Even the labelling will cut costs on things like lost brushes."

More power to the people

However, lean manufacturing isn't just about ensuring tools are in order and forms are filled in. People management is key to having a successful business.

Matthew Peacock, managing engineer at Vision in Print, highlights the universality of lean manufacturing. "It is applicable to everyone," says Peacock. "It is about the culture and approach and that can be used in all businesses. It is about minimising waste, such as wasting time on unnecessary things. Too much money is tied up in material and equipment that is not used properly.

"Newsprinters has been exemplary at achieving a transformation of business and minimising waste. Hundreds of millions of pounds has been spent here. In other print sites, you will see inefficiency and poor attitudes. It's about ensuring better management, not about throwing money away. It is more about changing culture than about spending money. Companies that succeed are the ones that adopt lean practices," he adds.

Chris Lees, lithographic machine manager at SMP, concurs. He says: "The accountability at Broxbourne is very good and ensuring people get along as a team is key. Accountability is so important and breaking everything down is a necessity. If small companies don't get things right from the outset and there is no infrastructure, it doesn't work. It is about basic organisation.

"Lean is so important - there is a lot of work in print and saving time is essential. It is also about getting the staff in the right place and investing time in team briefs, as well as taking time out of production to chat to employees," adds Lees.

All in the technique

Another advocate of lean methodologies is Richard Gray, commercial director at the BPIF. He says that many printers who visit Broxbourne are not so much interested by the technology, as by the techniques.

"Companies will not do things exactly as they see at Newsprinters, but will take away the techniques. Shopfloor workers see how clean everything is and the savings that can be made. Management is likely to become more regimented and committed. Many printers do not succeed and the ones that do have the right vision, right resources, right plan and right motivation."

Gray does not believe that the print industry will go down the same path as Toyota, but issues the warning: "No-one can rest on their laurels. With Toyota, the Japanese have realised they have done this. Sustainability is a big feature of Newsprinters and this is quite obvious in their drive. Toyota lost this drive."

No company can survive, particularly in this shaky economic climate without maintaining absolute efficiency and quality. The message seems to be that the types of management and manufacturing practices at Broxbourne can and should be replicated by printers of all sizes.