Lean is. . .

Eliminating waste is easier than you might think and will go a long way toward improving organizational performance.


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Most organizations have embraced lean concepts mainly because they make sense and lead to better organizational performance. These concepts are not complicated, yet they can be extremely effective. Unfortunately, some companies still harbor misconceptions about what “lean” is really all about. I would like to clarify what lean is and describe how lean concepts can be used to improve an organization.

Lean is ultimately about eliminating waste, and many forms of waste can be found in any organization. Some of the more common examples include making  more of something than is needed, doing more to a part than is required by its end user, moving parts around a plant and spending too much time looking for the things we need. Lean seeks to eliminate or reduce wastes such as these by striving to understand their causes and developing creative ideas for addressing these causes. 

Too Much Product
Perhaps we make more of something than we need because our production quality is deficient. In this case, the lean approach would be to analyze the specific non-conformances and rank them by frequency of occurrence. Starting with the most frequent non-conformance, root causes would be sought and corrective action developed that would reduce the likelihood of future recurrence. If we can improve our production quality, then one of the reasons for producing more parts than we need goes away.

Another reason we may make more of something than we need is the time it takes to change over a machine from producing one part to another. Long change-over times encourage us to produce larger quantities so that our machines appear as efficient as possible. The lean approach would not accept long change-over times as a given and would seek out reasons that change-overs take so long. (This may best be done by observing a number of change-overs.) As reasons are uncovered, alternative procedures would be explored with the goal of simplifying the entire change-over process and reducing change-over time. With fast change-over times, we have one less reason to produce more than we need. 

Too Many Features
It is possible we do more to a part than is actually needed by the end user because we do not 
really understand that user’s requirements. Therefore, we make assumptions that may prompt us to add certain features to parts, hold unreasonably tight tolerances or even incorporate special packaging, and we develop our production processes based on these assumptions. The lean approach would be to ensure the end user’s needs are clearly understood up front, even if this means investing more time and effort early on. In fact, one of the foundations of lean is to not start something unless you know it’s right and you know you can finish it.

Inefficient Product flow
We may move parts around our plants more than we really need to for a variety of reasons. One is that plants are often built up over time, adding new buildings or annexing parts of existing buildings as the need arises. As a result, product flow from start to finish may not be ideal. Two departments that ideally should be near each other because parts typically move from one to the other may actually be located on opposite ends of the plant.

Another reason we may move our products around the plant too much is that we accept the departmental layout concept as the best. In such a plant layout, all machines of a certain type are grouped together in one area, while machines of other types are likewise placed in their own dedicated areas. Lean advocates for plant layouts that minimize the distance parts must travel, and this may contradict the departmental layout concept. If a large number of parts need to move from one type of machine to another, the lean approach would be to place those two machines as close together as is practical (preferably right next to each other). A lean plant layout would place more value on how parts flow than on keeping machines of the same type together. 

Inefficient Organization
If we find ourselves spending a great deal of time looking for the things we need to do our jobs, we are probably facing a workplace organization problem. Lean-focused improvements generally start with improving the configuration of the work environment. To accomplish this, unneeded, redundant and rarely used items would be identified and removed. Next, visual indicators would be employed to provide “at-a-glance” understanding of where the needed items should be kept. Just like that, there is a place for everything that is needed and a clear expectation that everything should be returned to its proper place. Once a workplace is well-organized, time spent looking for things is drastically reduced, and we can spend more time creating value for our customers.

Lean concepts can go a long way toward improving organizational performance. In perhaps its simplest form, lean is about eliminating waste—wasted production, wasted effort and wasted time—and therefore optimizing efficiency.