Apr 17 2013

I’ve read numerous articles and books that provide a road-map to Lean success. Many of them prescribe a particular approach to beginning your journey down the path to being Lean. First off, to me and many of my industry colleagues, lean is a journey, not a destination, but I digress.

Some of these articles or books suggest that the first thing that needs to be done is a Value Stream Analysis (VSA) of your operation. Some say that 5S is the first place to start. Others suggest making a big song & dance kick off mini celebration about what “we” are about to achieve with “our” new programme. I might even suggest that we start with some form of engagement model where we empower our front line people to start making their own improvements by providing the time & support necessary to enable those changes.

However, the assumption that any particular first step is preferable to any other, assumes that all organisations are starting from the same point, have the same beginning culture, physical environment, operational issues, etc. I’m sure I’ve said it before, there is no 1 size fits all approach to lean/continuous improvement. There are of course some basic concepts that always apply but I would argue they sit more in the realm of how to change a culture than how to change a process.

Find that burning platform, that problem that is really causing you trouble and focus on fixing that. It may be disorganisation, which may lead to a 5S programme. It may be that your facility is reasonably laid out, organised, but the connections between processes are broken. You may start from a complete lack of trust in the management and any of the above will only be seen as another fad or the latest attempt to get more out of less from the workforce. In this case a slow engaging application of any tool, technique or approach may be necessary to rebuild trust.

The one thing I would suggest, no matter which approach or technique you start with, is to remember that it is not about how many tools & techniques you apply to the processes & the facility. It is about the engagement of the entire workforce in designing processes that make problems easy to identify. A well organised workplace is necessary for this, but if it already exists sufficiently to not cause major problems, what real benefit will we get from taking it to the next level?

Once we have processes which make problems blatantly obvious,  we need to solve those problems NOW. Ensure the support is there to take people from the symptom we are seeing, to the root cause & solve it so that it doesn’t come back, ever! Don’t allow workarounds and quick fixes to permeate your business. Solve problems completely by drilling down to the root cause & focusing in on solutions that change the way people act or behave. Machines don’t commit suicide, it takes people to kill them. Often processes fail because we haven’t trained people properly or we haven’t considered various limitations; with people, machinery, external influences (customers & suppliers) or materials. Solving the problems associated with the above is about learning from these mistakes & applying the solutions to this case, and all future similar circumstances.

As we solve our problems, we have to learn; about the causes, the solutions and the process we go through to solve them. By doing so, and sharing that knowledge across our organisations, we can increase our learning exponentially. Rather than everyone having to go through the same learning curve, we multiply the benefits of 1 person or team learning something through to everyone having that newly gained knowledge.

Most importantly, and I think this may be the best place to start, get the leadership focused on developing the skills and capabilities of the workforce to do the above 3 things. This takes patience, and a willingness to not have all the answers, or at least guiding people to the answers rather than providing answers for them. Get your people thinking for themselves, looking for opportunities to make improvements. Do you want them focused on applying a tool that solves a particular problem, just because some consultant said it’s the best place to start. Or do you want them solving their own problems every day, using whatever method works best for their circumstances, from your starting point?

photo credit: DaKaTotal via photopin cc

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