Where to start being lean. The real lean startup?

When taking an organisation that has absolutely no concept of what lean or even “best practice operations” is, where do you start? For the record I like to call these types of organisations “Germans”. I am joking of course (not much). The most challenging organisations I have worked have been German and Chinese. German organisations are fairly typical in my experience of being extremely ERP (read: SAP) orientated with very complex planning systems that never seem to reflect the reality of what is going on in production. They then spend all their time “managing” the difference and not really understanding what went wrong. Back to my original question, where do you start if this is the case for you? Or as a consultant you are called into start a “lean transformation” or something like that?

There are as many answers to this question as there are lean consultants in the world. Let us explore some of the more popular ones.

  • Understand your value streams first. We can call this the Womack approach. From what I have read and have heard this is the LEI general way to go about creating a lean transformation. I have never been able to convince a company to take this approach of identifying value streams, asserting management of the value streams and then driving those horizontally across the organisation. It is too big a pill to swallow at the beginning. I cannot help but think that if you could, it would be the most successful way to start.
  • Map your processes. Now, some might say this is the same as above. But it is not. Processes and value streams do not correlate well with one another. This could go back into the age old argument of what came first the process or the value stream but I need to finish that off with Melvin before writing about it. (Melvin is my fascinatingly geeky American friend). So map your processes, then start to understand where they are going wrong. Work to make them more reliable (less output variation = better quality), available (better PTU) etc. Sounds like it could be sensible approach doesn’t it. The issue here is that you are completely ignoring how productive you are and what value there is being produced. You will become obsessed with perfecting your processes very quickly without considering what is outside.
  • Start small, show an example of good practice and then spread. I used to do this. This was my preferred method and I have had some success with it as well. For example, I had a supplier who was just in chaos. They worked hard but definitely not smart. The first thing that struck you when you visited was what a mess the place was. They said this was a consequence of their work. I disagreed. I showed them pictures and video of other production environments in far dirtier industries and then I went through the theory, application and positive results of implementing 5S. They seemed to be pretty convinced but wanted to pilot it first. So we took one small area of the factory where my parts were made and we implemented 5S in that area. We ensured that the senior management understood what good should look like and set up and auditing system for the MD daily. Everyday he went down and asked questions of what they were doing. Within a week the guys in the area next to it had got jealous of the attention and quality of the workspace that they started doing it themselves. Within 6 months the entire factory had gone through a 5S transformation and the SAP system could show the increase in productivity that had been achieved. Now this was not world class levels of 5S, it was more just cleaning stuff and applying labels but it showed how things can easily improve with the right attention. I am not advocating this method. Just putting it forward as an option. The downside of this is that it is rarely sustained well and only usually impacts small areas at a time leaving the big gains untouched.
  • Educate all management levels on lean. This one I like. One of the barriers to lean implementation (I would rather call it a lean organisation), is that a lot of people do not believe in it. Once they really see it working in a good way they usually get it but then they can find it hard to apply the principles to their own area. A recommended way to start then is by educating all management levels, together, about lean. Why is lean used, why it is beneficial and how to understand what value streams etc are. You then look to the organisation itself to take the principles and apply them directly led internally. I can only think that this is probably the most painful way to start the lean journey but as long as management remain committed the business case will come as the improvements develop. I have not seen this approach ever proposed or used however. Why? I don’t know honestly.

So that is just some thoughts from me on how to start a lean journey. Please note the journey never ends so you need to be very committed. I look forward to your comments!

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3 thoughts on “Where to start being lean. The real lean startup?

  1. For what my comments are worth, I was worried where you were going until I got to the last one! Completely agree that educating at the top is where it should really start.

    Mapping is all too often seen as a theoretical exercise and even if done well, implementing real and lasting change off the back of it rare: “Map our processes? We’re too busy doing real work!”

    Pilot areas have their challenges too, often championed by a local enlightened soul, and unable to get the cultural changes across an organisation needed to make the transformation permanent.

    So I definitely see “The Top” as the best place to start (we could call it ‘leadership’). Why is it so rare in pracitce? For what it’s worth, I believe the problem is that a real lean transformation, whilst effective, takes too long and is too ethereal for management who have quarterly targets to achieve, and that this attitude trickles down… “5S? Who cares if the tools are back in the right place, get the plant up and running again!”

    How can we get top management to put aside the short term and *lead* the long term transformation???

    • Thanks for the comment! I was trying to list some of the approaches I have seen and heard about with my usual opinion but also not trying to say one is better than the other. That being said I agree with you that the last is where to start. However, I am not so certain the issue or focal point should be the top top managers. My experience is that it is middle managers (operational guys) who you need on board most. This applies for any sort of change not just lean. (Then argue what changes are you making of value outside of lean??) if they support and take to driving lean then it becomes owned in the middle and driven from there. It has to be the best starting point. Or?

  2. Pingback: We Labelled some stuff, that’s lean, right? | Lean Confidential

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