Lean: less complicated than you think.

What does it mean to practice Lean? Jon over at Gemba Penta Rei has the most elegant description of Lean I've seen:
  1. Set the rules
  2. Follow the rules
  3. Improve the rules
Jon describes this as being "sensible and simple, to the point of being stunning." And I agree. In fact, I will be incorporating a tweaked version of this in all of my lean training and six sigma training from this point forward. Tweaked, to remove the baggage laden word "rules" and incorporate the lean term "standard." so it becomes:
  1. Set the Standard
  2. Follow the Standard
  3. Improve the standard
All of the other lean tools (5S, Kanba, Visual controls, etc) are simply means to do one of those three things. If you are applying lean to your work area it is important to understand where you need to start.

Set the standard

This means to set the standard work. You can not improve if everybody doing the same job does it differently. Work with the people who actually do the job to develop a current best practice, and make that the standard process everybody follows. This is not just for front line workers, this applies to the CEO as well.

Follow the standard

Many managers assure me they have standard work procedures in place, but when pressed admit that it is only followed half the time. In this case we need to work on following the standard. This does not mean cracking the whip, or yelling at people, or holding other people accountable.

Find out why people are not following the standard and use lean tools to correct the process. Make the process as simple as possible and use signs and visual cues to make the next steps obvious. Build in visual controls to so that deviations from the standard are apparent. Once everyone is following the standard work, you will be able to see what is hard to do or doesn't work well and you can move on to improving the standard.

The best predictor of future success is current success. If you are able to manage a mediocre process, you will be able to manage an improved process. Likewise, if you can't manage an existing process, an improved one will likely revert to chaos before too long.

Improve the standard

As when setting the standard, get your front line people involved in improving the standard work. They know exactly where the current process falls short and they'll probably have good ideas for improving it. Make this a part of the culture instead of something that happens in big projects infrequently. Encourage employees to make suggestions any time, evaluate those suggestions with the group, and follow up with her whether you implement the suggestion or not. Facilitating this improvement cycle should be part of a manager's standard work.

This is the foundation of any improvement strategy whether it is lean, six sigma, TQM or the Red X. Improvement is impossible without managing those three things.

So what do you need to work on in your area? Setting standards, following standards, or improving the standards?

Photo: William Couch

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