Learning about Lean in Action

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The past two months of my professional life have been taken over by adapting some continuous improvement training materials there were general in nature to the specific needs of one of the business units that I support. This business unit wanted the continuous improvement day of the corporate frontline leadership program to support the deployment of specific Lean tools on which they had selected to put emphasis in the next year.

 This has been quite a ride, from being able to say that I had been exposed to some kind of continuous improvement methodology (a sort of home-made team leader training similar to a Green Belt program with a previous employer) to being able to partly facilitate a session mostly on Lean tools.

 We are delivering a total of 6 training sessions of 2 days (the first day on Continuous Improvement with Lean and the second day on change management) in a two-and-a-half-week period. Quite a hectic schedule!

 This training also seems not to fall on deaf ears. The BI manager at the site says that she is being bombarded by requests following the training sessions. We hope that the initial enthusiasm will not be washed out by the urgencies of day-to-day work. But so far, this is very good sign. When we were preparing for the training, I was told that Lean implementation had been tried at least twice at the site and that cynicism about another go at it was high. There was some sign of that in the sessions but relatively little.

 So as usual, in order to support my learning about this topic, I have relied on several books:

 1)       Womack, James P. and Daniel T. Jones, Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation, revised and updated, Free Press,New York,NY, 2003.

2)       Liker, Jeffrey K., The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer,McGraw-Hill,New York, NY, 2004.

3)       Mann, David, Creating a Lean Culture: Tools to Sustain Lean Conversations, 2nd edition, CRC Press,New York,NY, 2010.

4)       Sobek II, Durward K. and Art Smalley, A3 Thinking: A Critical Component of Toyota’s PDCA Management System, CRC Press, New York, NY, 2008.

 I particularly like the Mann book. There are two useful appendices with auditing guidelines to measure the maturity level with respect to Lean for both the manufacturing process and the office and the book is very practical in orientations. It focuses on changing culture by changing habits. In fact, the author defines organizational culture as the sum of work habits. While some may argue that this is a rather restricted definition of culture because it leaves out the values and beliefs aspects of it, it is quite pragmatic. Liker offers an interesting alternative view on culture change.

 Mann makes a strong case for the importance of mastering processes. Without this mastery, it is hard to consistently generate the same results. This is why processes must be mapped, understood and continuously improved. This is one of the basic tenets of Lean management. Mann states on page 13 that

Unlike managing in a results-oriented system, process focus implies frequent measurement against expected intermediate outcomes. As necessary, interventions can be started before the end results are affected. A corollary of frequent measurement at multiple intermediate steps in a lean process is that data are readily available to aid quick diagnosis of problems, spur immediate remedial action, and eventually eliminate root causes of problems. This is one aspect of continuous improvement. Rather than waiting for problems to develop, you are constantly monitoring for early signs of developing troubles, and you are primed to take quick action to eliminate the causes of problems.

 Now, some Lean consultants would tell you that mapping processes is the starting point of all Lean efforts and that the implementation of any Lean tools without this pre-requisite is bound to fail, or to limit the outcomes to “pockets” or “islands” of Lean, but not in a Lean organization. We might argue that some is better than none at all, but they may have a point.

 The action plan proposed by Womack and Jones also puts the mapping of processes (also referred to as “value streams”) early in the game. They also insist that the entire value stream for a given product or product family be looked at. They also advocate starting with an important and highly visible activity in order to get buy in. What you want is “to create an organization which can channel the flow of value and keep the stream from silting up again” (p. 255).

 The effort I was a part of has not gone that route; the organization has chosen to put the emphasis on the implementation of Lean boards, the use of practical problem solving, and the use of 5S. One of the leaders is also strongly in favour of using A3’s but this has not yet been introduced into the organization. Are they going to be doing enough to demonstrate that Lean can bring benefits to the organization? There is a lot of talk about eliminating waste, but without an emphasis on an approach that can help to identify non-value adding activity, how can this waste be truly identified? We risk picking only the “apparently” wasteful activities while missing the real stuff. Only time will tell, and in the meantime, I will keep reading and thinking…

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2 responses »

  1. Its such as you learn my thoughts! You appear to know a lot about this, such as you wrote the ebook in it or something. I feel that you simply could do with some percent to power the message house a bit, however other than that, that is wonderful blog. An excellent read. I will certainly be back.

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