Be Selective about Lean Implementation for Rapid Results

Contributed by Terry Mercer

I recently read a definition of Lean by Mark Doman in the Target Magazine:

“Lean is a system that creates a physical and social environment where problems are quickly identified and then solved by motivated employees who are trained to eliminate waste in their processes so that customers receive the highest quality products and/or services at the lowest cost in the shortest lead time.”

“Lean is a holistic approach to business operations. It is a different (in some cases very different) way of thinking, problem-solving, producing products and managing organizations. That is why it is so difficult to implement. It is not just one change, but a continuous series of changes that amounts to a fundamentally different way of running a business.”

While I agree with this definition, I also feel that a definition like this can be very intimidating to a company considering an implementation. Questions like where do I begin and when will I get some benefit, are often foremost in a managers mind. 

Lean Engineering can also be viewed as a tool set that a company can begin applying a step at a time. The key to a successful transition/implementation in my mind is to identify the tools and methods that will have a significant initial impact on your particular business. This approach will provide an immediate return and provide a success on which to build the organizations confidence and interest in expanding to other lean tools and initiatives.

Initial training should be focused on the tools required for an immediate project, rather than weeks or months of general lean training without a specific goal or application in mind.

The ‘Kaizen Blitz’ approach is one popular method for meeting this requirement. A team is formed to improve performance in a bottle neck or critical operation. Over a period of a week they receive basic training in one or more techniques, complete a study/analysis of the area, redesign the process and finally implement the changes to improve performance in the area. They could focus on 5S, standard work, set-up reduction or flow through the operation.

The starting point depends on the current state of the company, with consideration to such factors as:

  1. Is the business professionally managed and does it have well defined and documented processes?
  2. Is there a particular bottleneck operation or problem that needs to be resolved?
  3. Is excessive downtime or inadequate maintenance limiting throughput?
  4. Is it a new facility with poorly defined processes and a high percentage of new employees that require better training?
  5. Is it a facility that has already implemented some basic Lean methods and is ready to move to the next level?
  6. Is the management system primarily firefighting and reactive?

Selecting the right starting point is critical to long term success and to achieving optimal initial benefits with minimal investment in time and resources. For example, adding structure to the management system is a key first step if the company is in a firefighting mode as described in 6 above. It is difficult for employees to focus and learn new methods if they are stressed and working long hours just to meet the daily schedule.

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