We’ve written before about how the Lean management approach is prevalent in almost every industry. That’s because its twin pillars of continuous improvement and respect for people make sense in every sector. Supporting those pillars are the five principles of Lean. This post takes a closer look at each of them and will give you some questions to ask yourself that will help you find how best to apply them in your organization.
Value is defined as anything that the customer wants and will pay for. Only the customer gets to decide what represents value. Successful companies are those that provide value more efficiently than the competition. Because Lean organizations have value as a first principle, they are necessarily customer-centric.
How do you know if your organization is living the principle of value? Ask yourself these questions, and the answer to that should be clear.
- How do I know what the customer values?
- Is customer value a daily topic of discussion?
- Does customer value drive decisions?
- Is what the customer values static or does it change?
The set of resources and processes that are necessary to get value to the customer make up the value stream. This principle involves understanding and documenting the entire product lifecycle. Those practicing Lean management often create value stream maps for visualization. Is your organization’s value stream set up for success? Ask:
- Is the entire product lifecycle fully documented and well understood?
- Do we understand the value stream after the product is delivered to the customer?
- Does the value stream contain unnecessary elements or too much complexity?
- Is there a documented process for managing changes to the value stream?
The next Lean management principle is that of flow. If you’ve got a value stream, you want work-in-progress to move smoothly from start to finish. Anything that interrupts flow causes waste, increases costs, and hurts customer satisfaction. To evaluate and improve the state of flow, ask yourself:
- Are there predictable interruptions in flow that could be eliminated?
- What happens when an unexpected interruption occurs?
- What visualization tools are used to manage flow?
- How are the root causes of disruptions identified and addressed?
Pull and flow go hand in hand. The Lean principle of pull means never creating inventory or work-in-progress before it is needed. Each process pulls what it needs from the one before it that has created it just-in-time. You can start to apply the principle of flow by asking:
- What are the consequences of excess work-in-progress (WIP) in our organization?
- Is it easy to tell when a process requires input?
- What circumstances exist that cause the creation of excess WIP inventory?
- How do we assess and improve the handoffs between processes and functions?
Lean leaders know that perfection is not possible, but that doesn’t stop them from striving to achieve it. Perfection requires creating the conditions under which every employee can do their best work and then empowering them to make incremental improvements that move the ball ever closer to the goal. It also requires having standards on which to build. You should know:
- What tools do employees have to report and manage opportunities for improvement?
- Are people recognized and rewarded when they contribute to positive change?
- Is the organization aligned around its most important goals and objectives?
- How is success measured?
- Is there a Standard work for every process that is documented, followed, and used for the basis of improvement?
One other thing that it is essential to keep in mind as you start to apply these principles within your organization is that Lean management is a journey, not a destination. There will be dead ends and bumps in the road and plenty of chances for you and your team to refine your Lean leadership approach. It’s OK if the answers to some of these questions are elusive in the beginning.
As James Womack and Dan Jones wrote in their book, Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation, “As organizations begin to accurately specify value, identify the entire value stream, make the value-creating steps for specific products flow continuously and let customers pull value from the enterprise, something very odd begins to happen. It dawns on those involved that there is no end in the process of reducing effort, time, space, cost and mistakes while offering a product which is ever more nearly what the customer actually wants. Suddenly perfection, the fifth and final principle of lean thinking, doesn’t seem like a crazy idea.”