When asked to describe “Lean,” many professionals cite cost reduction, labor savings, or “Isn’t that a manufacturing thing?” With consolidation, workforce reductions and the shrinking labor pool, it’s no wonder many see Lean as just another way to save money.
Viewing Lean as a cost-cutting effort alone understates the real power of Lean. Worse, if company leaders attempt to apply Lean with a one-time “fix it” mentality and let workers go as a result of improved processes, they’ll destroy the initiative. Why would your team members help you lay off their associates?
Lean’s power is in its strategy for engaging your people to continuously improve. When deployed effectively, your organization will gain advantage over the competition because you keep getting better every day.
It’s not just “Lean Manufacturing”
Lean is a proven method for eliminating waste that results in more value to customers, delivered at a lower cost, in a shorter time, with fewer defects and less human effort. While the principles are more broadly recognized in manufacturing, Lean applies to all types of organizations. It’s a business strategy based on respect for people and the continuous improvement of all processes in an organization.
Lean seeks the “least waste way” to perform tasks. It’s a never-ending quest. Today’s advances become the baseline for future improvements. As people learn to see and eliminate as much waste as possible, they discover still better ways of performing the work, and the cycle repeats.
Most leaders have heard about the dramatic results of Lean. It is common to see productivity improvements in triple-digit percent gains the first time the principles are effectively deployed in any area. The real benefit, however, is in developing standards that keep your team improving over the long term.
Keeping Lean going
The principles of Lean are simple, but difficult to sustain. While initial activities show results, many companies struggle with keeping improvement gains without a plan and support for continued application. Leaders often miss the human factor of implementing change.
So, how do you keep processes from backsliding to the old way of doing things? Develop standard work – the “standard” way in which a job is expected to be done.
Standard work includes a description of the work, the sequence of tasks involved, any equipment or tools needed, and the time required to complete each task. It should be posted at each operator’s location.
The process of developing standard work usually delivers productivity gains. This fall, the Peters Company mapped out the order fulfillment process for three different organizations and doubled sales capacity by eliminating unneeded steps. Andres Alamillo, Continuous Improvement Manager with Smith Gardens, said, “In our selecting process with pack items we were able to improve our units per worker hour by 55 percent just by developing standard work.”
Continued improvements are not possible without standard work. Quality and productivity vary based on the knowledge and capability of the person doing the work. This reliance upon human experience is called “tribal knowledge.” It is an environment where only certain individuals have the ability to do a job well, and understanding of how to do a job is passed on from person-to-person.
Tribal knowledge can be destructive. This type of work environment not only creates the opportunity for power plays and control situations, but also limits the ability of the company to staff and schedule consistently. If there are functions in your company where the ability to do a job relies on a small group of people – or worse, a single skilled and experienced person – you need to develop standard work.
Standard work needs a visual workplace
Lean companies work to create a visual workplace. This is an environment where anyone can walk into an area and understand what’s going on with the process, if the work is on schedule or not, and if there are any abnormalities. A visual workplace makes it easy for people to follow standard work.
Examples are area signs and walkway markers, checklists, safety alerts and status boards. Color-coding is effective and often used; red-yellow-green commonly reflects bad-alert-good.
Visual controls are commonly used in our world today. Imagine a parking lot with no stripes, roads with no lanes or signs – or a grocery store with no labels or pictures! Examples of effective visual controls are everywhere, yet many organizations still rely on tribal knowledge to accomplish much of the work.
Language differences make creating standard work more challenging, but should never become an excuse for not doing so. These language “gaps” can be mitigated by the use of good visual controls, translated documentation, and ongoing training and support from leadership.
See these principles in action:
- Improving Efficiency in the Elections Process
- Lean’s Impact in the Plant Yard
- Standardized Maintenance Carts Reduce Time and Steps
Continuous improvement requires leadership
It takes strong leadership with vision and tenacity to make significant, ongoing improvements in an organization. Some resist change because it’s uncomfortable – it’s human nature. Organizations that short-circuit the process of creating standard work will find improvements are lost over time due to a tendency to drift backward to a prior, more wasteful state. To minimize the impact of change, give ownership and promote buy-in, always involve those doing the job in developing their own standard work.
With the aging of our working population, labor is less available, and competition for skilled labor is greater than ever. Companies that want to stay in business over the long term are building up their workforce to support continuous improvement.