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The Principles and Implementation of Lean Improvement

Posted by Matt Banna

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Feb 15, 2022 9:42:00 AM

Close up of businesswoman holding graphs in handTo succeed in today's hyper-competitive environment, organizations must strive to improve continuously. But, because that's easier said than done, forward-thinking business leaders have developed several structured improvement methodologies over the years. One of the most widespread is an approach that grew out of the Japanese automotive industry, Lean manufacturing. Today, Lean thinking ideas are applied in almost every industry, including healthcare, education, construction, and software development.

If you are looking for a way to bring structure to your organization's continuous improvement efforts, Lean improvement may be the path toward achieving your most important strategic, long-term objectives.

Five Foundational Lean Principles

The Lean philosophy rests on five core principles that set the foundation for improvement.

Value: Anything that a customer would willingly pay for represents value. Value is always considered through the eyes of the customer. Any task, process, feature, or product that does not represent value to the customer is considered waste. Some waste is necessary. For example, waste may be required to comply with regulations. Other waste is unnecessary. Excess packaging comes to mind. Necessary waste should be minimized while unnecessary waste must be eliminated. 

The Value Stream: To identify waste, an organization must clearly grasp how value flows to the customer. Starting with raw materials or service ideas, each process or operation should add value that eventually reaches the customer. Lean improvement relies on value stream mapping to visualize the production process and identify unnecessary tasks or processes.

Flow: Therefore, it follows that the flow of value to the customer should be frictionless. A stalled work process can result in the wastes of waiting and excess inventory. The goal of lean leaders is to make sure that there are no interruptions in the flow of value to the customer.

Pull: To achieve consistent flow, the Lean principle of pull is applied. Work-in-progress is not moved from one state to another until there is immediate demand by the internal or external customer. For example, developers do not build code in a Lean software organization until there are adequate QA resources to test it.

Perfection: The ultimate goal of Lean is to achieve perfection by creating processes with zero waste. Of course, this is impossible, but every Lean improvement gets organization's a little bit closer to perfect. This incremental, daily approach is often far more effective than disruptive revolutionary change.

[Watch Now] Components of an Employee-Led Lean Initiative


Structuring Lean Improvement

While the Lean production system can be applied in a myriad of ways, there are some common elements to structuring Lean improvement. 

Document the Standard Work: 

To determine whether a change in the production process results in improvement, it is necessary to have a baseline from which to measure. In the Lean system, this is called Standard Work. Standard Work is the documented best process for any activity or task. Process operators constantly adhere to the Standards Work until an improvement cycle results in a new Standard.

Identify Opportunities for Improvement:

With a standard in place, operators and supervisors can recognize and report any opportunities for improvement. Ideally, each idea is captured by Lean software and routed to a manager or quality leader for review and potential implementation.  

Start an Improvement Cycle:

Within the Lean framework, change is controlled and implemented only following a thoughtful process. Many Lean organizations use the PDSA (Plan, Do, Study Adjust) cycle. First, the problem is defined, and potential solutions are considered. An experiment is conducted. The results are studied, and adjustments are made if needed. If the experiment succeeds, the Standard Work is changed, and a new cycle can begin.

Visualize Work in Progress:

It is helpful to visualize the work-in-progress as it moves from one activity to the next to ensure flow and enforce pull. Many Lean organizations use Kanban boards to depict the flow of work. Each work item is identified by a card that moves from one column to the next until complete. Toyota's kanban system involved physical cards representing inventory items on the factory flow. Today, digital kanban boards are the standard.

Measure Results

Measuring the impact of improvement is central to the Lean methodology. The ability to provide specific and objective performance indicators is how Lean leaders spread the idea of continuous improvement and justify necessary investments. Lean software makes it easy to calculate the impact of positive change against indicators like cost of goods, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, time to market, and supply chain efficiency.

Lean Improvement Software

While Lean started in the 1940s well before access to apps was a thing, today, modern organizations leverage software designed to support their Lean improvement efforts. The essential capabilities of such solutions are:

Opportunity Capture: With cloud-based software and mobile apps, employees can identify and report opportunities for improvement from wherever they happen to be.  

Automated workflow and alerts: Once an opportunity is identified, it is routed to the proper manager or supervisor for review. If an opportunity is selected for implementation, alerts and notifications ensure everyone knows when tasks are due.

Cross-functional collaboration: Having a single platform for managing improvement efforts makes it easier to work on projects that involve more than one function or team. In most organizations, the most significant opportunities for improvement are found where work crosses one team or process into another.

Reporting: The best Lean software tools give leaders insight into the activities, engagement, and results of each department, team, and individual. From one central platform, leaders can spot blockages inflow, stalled projects, and trends in engagement.

Success Broadcasting: An excellent way to spread Lean improvement throughout an organization is to recognize and broadcast success far and wide. When people see others acknowledged for their efforts, they become more likely to expend discretionary effort on improvement work.

More Lean Improvement Tools and Techniques

We mentioned the critical Lean techniques of Standard Work, Kanban boards, and the PDSA improvement cycle. In addition, a few other tools and methods are widely used to achieve Lean improvement.

Gemba Walks

In Japanese, the word Gemba means the real place. In Lean, that means the place where work is done, whether it be a factory floor, an emergency room, or an office. During a Gemba walk, supervisors, managers, and leaders visit the workplace to show respect for workers, ask questions, and possibly identify opportunities for improvement that kick off a PDSA cycle.

Daily Huddles

Many Lean organizations bring team members together briefly once a day to discuss the improvement activities planned for that day. At one time, physical huddle boards were used to visualize active improvement projects. Today, digital boards are far more common, making it more possible for remote teams and other off-site workers to participate effectively.

5 Whys

In the quest for continuous improvement, the root cause of problems must be identified and addressed. The Lean technique of the 5 Whys involves stating a problem and then asking why as many times as needed to get to the root cause. Five tries usually does the trick, but the actual number will vary based on the problem. The important thing is that fixes are not applied to symptoms but instead are deployed against the actual cause of the issue.

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The Lean approach to improvement moves organizations out of a reactive mode and into a more proactive, thoughtful, and sustainable approach to change. Bringing structure to improvement helps leader achieve their most critical strategic goals, utilize resources to their highest potential, and engage employees in a way that brings meaning and emotional investment to their work.

Topics: Lean

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