Lean Practices Are Not Just for Manufacturers

Anyone who has experiences applying lean practices realizes that the focus of lean is on the elimination of waste, which can reside in any process in any company or industry.

When people think of “lean practices,” they typically relate them to the manufacturing industry. Perhaps this is because manufacturers have found so much success applying these practices in their operations. Also, the words “lean” and “manufacturing” have been linked together for so long that it is understandable why some people think there is some kind of exclusive relationship in play. Yet, eliminating waste isn’t specific to the manufacturing industry. Lean practices can be applied anywhere.
One of the basic elements of lean is workplace organization, defined as having a place for everything and everything being in its place. As simple as this may sound, its importance is easy to overlook. After all, anyone can organize a workplace to suit his or her needs. However, the real benefits come from organizing a workplace to suit everyone’s needs. Manufacturers have focused on workplace organization with the objective of locating everything needed to produce a product in the least amount of time possible. To this end, they have located tools, fixtures and equipment in highly visible locations, ensured that paperwork is clearly labeled and easily accessible, designated specific areas to serve as storage locations and more.
Workplace organization is equally important in companies that do not manufacture anything. Consider tools used in an office, such as printer cartridges, stationery supplies and plain paper. There is considerable benefit to placing all of these in designated locations so they can easily be found. Likewise, office paperwork, such as forms and customer files, should be clearly labeled and stored in a convenient location. Storage cabinets and file drawers also need to be clearly marked so everyone knows where to find what they need. There is no downside to a neat, clean, orderly workplace anywhere in a company. 
Another lean concept applied in manufacturing is the “right sizing” of inventory. This involves determining the correct amount of inventory needed—not too little, and not too much. Right sizing has reduced inventory levels in most manufacturing companies, which indicates that most kept too much stuff in the first place.
Any company can benefit from evaluating and right sizing inventory of all types. Getting a handle on supply items is a logical first step. Ordering smaller quantities of supplies that can be consumed in a short interval will likely lead to smaller inventory levels and less cash expended on items not needed. In addition to supply items, work in process, such as multiple tasks that have been started but not finished, represents another type of inventory buildup. This type results from a misuse of resources and time. The idea of not starting a task unless it can be finished can help to reduce this type of inventory.  
Standardizing work, or the lean concept of employing best practices, has long had a place in manufacturing operations. There is an initial effort needed to find the best way to machine a casting, punch out a shape or mold a completed part. Yet, once this is determined, this becomes the standard. There is an opportunity to develop best practices in any type of organization. Discovering the best practice will always require a certain amount of effort up front, but this effort should be offset by increased efficiency and more consistent output from any process.
Increasing equipment reliability through various proactive maintenance steps is another way the manufacturing industry has applied lean. Machine operators often use start-up checklists before producing any parts on a machine. Checklists such as these are designed to help the operator identify conditions that would prevent the equipment from operating in a safe and reliable manner. Taken a step further, these checklists can reduce the chance of unplanned downtime and increase the life of equipment.
These proactive practices can be applied to companies that use any type of equipment in any industry. For example, printers, fax machines, copiers, flat-bed scanners and barcode readers all have the potential to break down at the worst possible time. In the case of the fax machine, a start-up checklist could be placed near the machine and require the person turning the unit on to:
1. Ensure that machine is free of dirt, oil and grease.
2. Check the menu for any failure/service interruption messages.
3. Ensure that the telephone line and electrical cord are connected.
4. Ensure the paper tray is full.
Completing this checklist would take less than a minute, yet could improve the machine’s operating efficiency and reduce unplanned downtime.

These are just a few of the lean tools applicable to any type of company. If we invest the time, we will find the best ways to use them.