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Lonnie Wilson

Six Sigma

Five Things You Can Do to Lean Your Company

Five tasks in two days can set lean in motion.

Published: Wednesday, September 2, 2009 - 05:30

Five things to lean my company? In two days? That's pretty quick. Why so quickly?  

I can think of two reasons. First, people expect things to be done better and faster each day; and it appears we’re getting decent at doing just that. Lean has made huge strides toward contributing to that “better, faster” concept. Second, I always emphasize making large early gains. It is interesting that this concept of “early gains” isn’t typically pushed by many lean practitioners. Most are quite content to sell lean as “a journey” and leave it at that. A journey it is; no doubt about that. However, it is awfully convenient, and quite frankly suspicious, that they leave out the early gains issue, because those gains are there. So why exclude this low hanging fruit? Because to include it would put more pressure on them to produce today, and without that pressure, consulting is just a little easier—not better, just easier. Since because people want it, and because “early gains” is one of my mantra, I decided I should be responsive to the request. Here goes. 

Lean is, in part, a journey. It is built on two massive building blocks, the first one is continuous improvement; the second one is what Taiichi Ohno, the architect of the Toyota Production System, calls “respect for people.” As I have studied it, the meaning by Ohno goes beyond what Westerners typically think of as respect. It also implies utilizing the full person—utilizing the body and the mind. In addition, it means to fully provide people with all the tools they need to perform and to not only expect, but demand the very best from them. It goes even further, but suffice to say, it goes well beyond what we normally call respect. 

Because it is a journey, and continuous improvement is a key concept, let’s start with “continuous self-improvement.” Hence, task No. 1 is to find a good book on lean—I will, of course, recommend mine, How to Implement Lean Manufacturing (McGraw-Hill; 2009)—and put yourself on a reading schedule. If you spend just 20 minutes each day and start now, you will complete the book by Halloween. Start to study, start to learn, and after finishing the book, more likely than not, you will need little encouragement to read and study further. 

Then we need to act. Lean is not a spectator sport. So what can we do today? What is our objective? Taiichi Ohno, in his book, Toyota Production System, Beyond Large Scale Production (Productivity Press, 1988) wrote, “The basis of the Toyota production system is the absolute elimination of waste.” He also wrote, “Cost reduction is the goal.”

He wrote that waste in manufacturing can be classified in these categories: transportation, waiting of people, overproduction, defective products, inventory, excessive movement of people, and excessive processing. All of these were wastes; they all create operating expense but supply no value to the customer. 

Let’s focus on what kind of waste we can eliminate and the cost reductions will take care of themselves. Where might that waste be? If you have an assembly line, you might want to run down there and check it out. However, some of us don't have that luxury; but I'll bet we can all find some type of administrative process to work on. Maybe it's invoice processing, maintenance or stationary requests, purchase order preparation and approval, or maybe you would like to be a little more aggressive and review how your “help line” works, if you have one. We are all surrounded by administrative processes and I'll bet there is one you can find that needs improvements—if not a total overhaul. Make sure you pick one you can change; remember this is not a spectator sport. We don’t want to catalogue possible changes; we want to make changes. 

The help line is a pet peeve of mine. I no longer call the help line if I can avoid it. We all know how it wastes our time. What I now do is call the sales number instead. They always answer promptly and I get to speak to a real person. This example proves that companies know how to design responsive systems but it seems some choose not to. I learned this as a young engineer when I was employed by an international oil company. They moved me a lot and although things like my employee benefits update and my company news may take two or three months to catch up to my new location, my credit card bill would beat me to my new address. 

Businesses can improve their administrative processes if they want to. The opportunities are everywhere. 

Task No. 2 is to pick a process to analyze and improve. First, walk the process and do it in a special way. Do it from finish to start. Get a feeling for the flow in the process. Simply observe what is happening. Compare it to what is supposed to happen, even if you only look at the movement of the product through the system. Next, do that walk again, only this time with paper and a pencil. Make a simple process flow diagram, note where the process flows, and note who are the suppliers and who are the customers. In lean, each work station has an activity; those who give the station the inputs are normally called suppliers, and those who receive the work station’s output are called customers. A lean axiom is, “the customer is the next step.” 

As you go through the process flow, document it. Don’t try to be a process management expert, but rather, use simple common sense. Because the process is designed to keep moving, note when the paperwork stops. Discuss it with the workers. Get them engaged. Ask them questions; listen carefully to the answers. Ask why it stopped. How long will it sit there? Why? What do we need to do to keep it moving? Do the people doing the work know what to do? Do they know how to do it? Can they distinguish good work from bad? Do they have all the resources to do the work? Do they have a way to handle the unusual? Do they get quality input? If the input is incomplete, inaccurate, or otherwise substandard, what can they do? Do they have standards for the input? 

Don’t try to do this with a check-off list or some fancy “process review matrix,” just be logical, intuitive, and practical. Most administrative processes are filled with waste and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to improve them. It often just takes a fresh view, a few good questions posed to the people really doing the work, listening carefully to the responses, followed by some common sense applications and corrective actions. 

Now we have a process mapped out. If you pick a normal process it may take two hours to go through it, back to front. When you arrived first thing this morning, you first checked your e-mail, had a cup of coffee and spent 15 minutes on the internet. Then you do this two-hour task, so by now it is not even noon. Shoot, we have lots of time, but there’s more to do. 

Next it's worthwhile to spend a few minutes thinking about what you have just done. Reflect for just a moment. Look at the entire process and ask, what are the two or three things I can do today to improve this process? To improve the process, think first about reducing the time, from beginning to end, to complete the process. In lean-speak, we call this lead time; and there is no better way to measure the “leanness” of a process, than its lead time. Shorter lead time equals leaner process. Not always true but very seldom false. Pick those few items, compile them into a to-do list and then go to lunch. When you return form lunch, think about them a little more; then go to the process and change something or some things. Change it and watch the process respond. Did it get faster? Check the people, did any of them smile? Usually they do. 

So now in this mapped process, we found some items to improve and improved one or two. Whew, ready to move on. 

For task No. 3, I would find an ally. Someone will express some curiosity and want to know what you are doing. Tell him or her that you are trying to improve the process by removing some waste. Check his response. In my experience this almost always creates a question as a reply. Maybe even, “What in the h--- are you talking about?” Well, tell him. Show him your process map; show him your notes. Most likely you will have a really fun discussion. Let it flow. Usually you end the discussion with an ally. If he is so inclined, turn him loose with what you just did. Have him select a process, map it, gather some information, analyze a little, act on the data, improve a little. 

That sounds like a pretty full day and, likely, it is.

The next day brings task No. 4, which is to hurry right back to the process and see what improvements have been made. Did the things you implement really work? If so how can you standardize them? If not, what do you need to do to achieve maintain those gains? What do the workers have to say about the changes?  With our No. 4 task, we have completed the plan-do-check-act loop, the cornerstone to continuous improvement.

Also on the second day, as task No. 5, I would meet with my ally and trade stories. What worked? What did not? In lean-speak we call this yokoten, a Japanese word for sharing your experience so other locations and situations can also benefit from your gains. Ask, what do we do in similar processes so that they work better? Ask introspective questions like, “Why is the sales line responsive and the help line is not?” Try to “see” your way beyond your blind spots. In addition look carefully at your ally’s process. What can you learn from his experience? What can he learn from you? Usually there is a lot of energy at this point, so before day two is over, between you and your ally, commit to further improve each process that you have embarked upon and, furthermore, find another ally.  

So here we are at day two and I hope you can clearly see the two foundations of lean. Is continuous improvement obvious at both the personal and process level? Did the respect for people stand out? Could you see the opportunity to reduce waste? Can you see how this can be both profitable and morale building?  

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is just how natural this process of lean implementation really is. All too often it is just common sense personified and put to work for the benefit of the process and the people.


About The Author

Lonnie Wilson’s default image

Lonnie Wilson

Lonnie Wilson is the author of How to Implement Lean Manufacturing (McGraw-Hill, 2009), and the founder of Quality Consultants, located in El Paso, Texas, which teaches and applies lean techniques to Fortune 500 firms as well as small entrepreneurs, principally in the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

For more information, visit www.qc-ep.com.