Whether or not your organization fully embraces the Lean approach to business, the methodology has a ton of useful tools and techniques. So many, in fact, that it can be challenging to decide which one to use for various types of improvement efforts. We can't give you a definitive answer because every organization and situation is unique, but there are some situations for which particular tools are generally well suited. Here are some recommendations.
Not all positive change needs to be revolutionary. The best performing organizations commit to making incremental changes frequently to move every process ever so closer to perfection. There are a couple of Lean tools that are perfect for these small changes that should be happening every day.
Before any improvement work can begin, there must be a baseline from which to start. Standard work is simply the documentation of the current best practice for any process or task. It is developed by the process operators and continuously maintained. It must be accessible in the workspace. Everyone performs the process according to the standard work until it is adjusted following a structured improvement cycle.
PDSA is a rapid improvement cycle. The phases are Plan, Do, Study, Act. It's a great way to implement small changes quickly, but with an element of control. During the Plan phase, the problem and the desired state are defined, and a hypothesis is reached as to what might result in improvement. The measure of success and any other KPIs are defined. The "Do" part consists of implementing the proposed change and collecting data. The data is then studied to determine if the changed did result in improvement. If so, it's time to Act and make the change permanent.
Kanban boards are a great way to visualize all of the improvement projects your team is working on at any given time. This makes daily improvement easier to manage for process operators and leaders alike. Work is moved across the board from idea to completion. The design makes it easy to see when there are backlogs or when work is waiting for inputs. Digital Kanban boards are ideal because people can access them from anywhere, and they create a record of past improvement work for future review.
Some challenges require more than just a typical PDSA cycle. These are big, sometimes long-lasting, problems that may require a cross-functional team to solve. For the toughest problems, you might want to bring out the biggest Lean guns.
While we are big fans of daily improvement, sometimes problems are so significant or urgent that you need people concentrating on solving them and nothing else. That's when it is time for a Kaizen event. During a Kaizen or rapid improvement event, a team is selected that will focus all of their attention on the issue at hand over a three to five day period. Kaizen events usually have a charter and are facilitated by a member of the team or a professional facilitator. An executive sponsor makes sure that the team has the resources it needs to achieve success.
The A3 Report is a problem solving and tool that was developed by Toyota. Leaders at Toyota believed that even the most complex problems could be documented on a single sheet of paper. This level of precision helps everyone concentrate on the same set of facts. (It's called A3 because that's the European name for the size of paper that was used. In the US its closest to 11 x 17.) The structure of an A3 report brings another level of sophistication and control to the PDSA cycle at its heart, a must for difficult to solve challenges.
Many people don't think about strategic planning as part of continuous improvement, but it absolutely is. If improvement work is not aligned with the strategic goals, an organization will never make it to "True North." Lean practitioners realize this and have developed several potent strategy deployment tools.
In Japanese, Hoshin means "compass needle" or "direction," and Kanri means "management" or "control." In practice, it means that management has control of where the organization is going. This is made possible by following the guiding principles:
Objectives are communicated
There is a deep understanding of the current state
There is widespread engagement in crafting and executing the strategy
Resources are prioritized according to the plan
Precision tracking of performance is constant
An X-matrix is a tool for visualizing strategy deployment. It consists of five sections, four of which take up the quadrants formed by an X. The layout of the matrix helps define the relationships between each of them. The sections include:
Breakthrough Objectives (Bottom Quadrant)
Annual Objectives (Left Quadrant)
Annual Improvement Opportunities and Priorities (Top Quadrant)
Metrics to Measure and Targets to Improve (Right Quadrant)
Teams and Ownership (Far Right Side)
This visualization tool helps create consensus and focus. It also helps ensure that goals are aligned and cascaded down the organization.
One tool that cuts across every one of these situations is Lean software. It can be used to support and document each of the techniques we mentioned. Not only that, but it helps your organization get smarter by creating a center of collected wisdom to help your team make every improvement more impactful than the last.