Lean process improvement is one of the most widely utilized business improvement
methodologies. There are hundreds of consultants and schools teaching lean principles.
The problem with many courses teaching lean is the lack of real-world experience of the instructor. Many have limited experience applying the principles, nor the interpersonal skills to influence change.
Lean process improvement is not nearly as structured as Six Sigma or other continuous improvement initiatives. There is no standard approach to implementation or third-party certifying body such as ISO.
Lean consists of many different “tools”. The best courses teach the lean principles as well as how and when to use the tools.
Some companies have heard that lean implementation will reduce their waste and costs, and decide to just start implementing. They often start using one tool at a time until the boss declares it’s done.
Worse yet, some companies find a consultant that knows 5-S and little else. When the consultant leaves, the clean and organized business eventually realizes they are clean, organized and still full of waste.
The correct approach to implementing lean process improvement begins with an analysis of the businesses needs, opportunities and challenges. Once these opportunities are identified, the tools are used which will solve the issues. These tools might be lean or Six Sigma tools. It simply wouldn’t be prudent to limit the success of a lean initiative to exclude any tool if it was known to solve the problem at hand. In other words, the problems identify the tools rather than the tools being forced into the organization.
Some of the lean tools are 5-S (sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain), value stream mapping, kanban, takt time, continuous flow, cellular manufacturing, TPM (Total Productive Maintenance), SMED (single-minute exchange of die), OEE (overall equipment effectiveness), line balancing, standardized operations, seven wastes (muda), error-proofing, kaizen and root cause problem-solving.
There are a few tools that can and should be used with any lean process improvement initiative. The 5-S tool is a powerful workplace organization tool. This tool makes sense in any business. It would be hard to find an organization where order and organization didn’t make sense.
Root cause problem-solving tools should be used in every lean implementation. These tools vary based on the problem. Some of the more common are cause and effects analysis, five-why analysis, 8D method, CT trees, process mapping and affinity diagrams.
Value stream mapping is another useful tool to determine where value is added and identify where no value is added (muda). The value stream map depicts the flow of product and information on paper. Information such as inventory, distance and bottlenecks are highlighted. Once the value stream map is completed, opportunities for improvement become obvious.
Tools such as line balancing, SMED, takt time and OEE should be used to solve specific business opportunities. For example, SMED (single-minute exchange of die) is a tool that is used to reduce machinery or process setup times. This tool is a lot more useful in businesses that run smaller order quantities and changeover often. OEE is an excellent tool to determine why a machine or process is not producing at world-class levels. Once the reasons (opportunities) are known, they can be improved.
Kaizen (a Japanese word meaning continuous improvement) is a very powerful improvement tool. It is basically a rapid (three to five days) improvement method utilizing a cross-functional team to solve a business problem. A kaizen event team will use many other lean tools to help solve the problem.
Utilize lean principles to identify and solve business issues and the financial impact will justify their use. If the tools are made to “fit” the organization, the result will be chaos, disruption, low morale and financial loss.
Willie L. Carter is the president of Quantum Associates, Inc, a process improvement consultancy. He specializes in improving processes. Carter certifications include, Lean Sensei, ISO 9000 Lead Assessor, Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence. He is an experienced facilitator, coach, and author. His company helps executives optimize their business processes to minimize their costs, accelerate their cycle time while simultaneously enabling them to do more with less. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org