5 Ways to Prepare your Manufacturing Team for Lean Process Optimization

Performing an Amazon “Lean” book search will result in over 7,000 results. It’s not a surprise, since many companies have been able to successfully implement Lean with outstanding results. What isn’t commonly acknowledged is that “only 2 percent of companies that have a lean program achieved their anticipated results” according to a 2007 paper written by Jeffrey Liker and Mike Rother titled “Why Lean Programs Fail”.

If you are preparing to implement a Lean program in your workplace, keep the following five ideas in mind:

1) Do not embark on a Lean journey with the singular goal of cutting costs.

I was part of a Lean Implementation where every single project’s merit was solely cost based. I spent several months in a department, working hand in hand with the front-line employees to reduce wastes, standardize processes, and create training material for onboarding. My final report showed that we had been able to successfully reduce the necessary time to complete all required tasks in the department by approximately 30%!

The very next week, one of those same individuals that worked with me to streamline their department, was called into the main office and told they were no longer needed. How do you think that made the “Lean” program look? It’s not surprising that the program didn’t last much longer.

Lean can help you cut-costs by process improvement but if you use those improvements to start laying people off, your workforce will be frustrated, alienated and probably trust you less than they did before you started. If you need to cut costs, then cut them, but do not force your people through a feigned continuous improvement effort.

2) Ensure that Leadership is aligned with, and supports, the Lean Implementation.

A common response as to why a Lean Program fails is a “lack of leadership support”. Lean is a top down initiative. You cannot expect your employees to properly 5S their workstations if your own desk is piled two feet high with paper and reports. One must lead by example if this is going to succeed. Furthermore, you must put a system in place that instills accountability, and it must be followed, without exception. Merely having a daily “Gemba Walk”, where leadership visits each department and checks on the current status, does not lead to improvement. Supervisors and Managers need to be challenged, daily, concerning the opportunities in their area and what steps are being taken to improve them. By checking in with the team on their efforts, and providing coaching and encouragement when necessary, Leadership shows their commitment and support of the companies Lean program.

3) Decide on common Metrics - measure them and discuss them.

Without measurement, all “results” will merely be an opinion. A common set of measurable metrics must be determined to create uniformity throughout the company. Once these metrics are decided upon, their importance needs to be communicated across all departments, and a system needs to be put in place that allows the departments to capture and report those numbers. As with everything, these metrics should be developed by a team of people, not by one person in their office.

Make the numbers visible and important. If a metric is missed, make it a point to bring it up within the department and determine “why” that happened. Make sure the conversation focuses on the process and not the person, the question is why, not who. If the numbers aren’t talked about, they won’t seem important, and you will not be able to make any measurable Lean improvements.

4) Involve your front-line employees.

During my Quality Circle Leader training at Toyota Georgetown, my group was asked why Toyota paid their front-line employees overtime to participate in Quality Circles. The answers varied from “to eliminate wastes” to “help save money”. The trainer nodded her head with each answer before exclaiming, “Toyota has Quality Circles as a way to develop its people.” What a great lesson to hear from one of the original Toyota Georgetown employees that had worked their way from an assembly line worker to a company Trainer over the course of 30 years! Development of your team will be one of the single greatest outcomes to the implementation of a Lean initiative, but only if you avail them the opportunity. Ask them questions, involve them in Lean events, and allow them to contribute. One of our favorite quotes on this is: “Those who plan the battle, rarely battle the plan.” If you don’t involve your people, it will feel like this is being done “TO” them instead of “With Them”. And human nature will always be to resist things, that are done TO us.

5) Strive for perfection, but do not expect it.

When I first started at Toyota, I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to contribute to any improvement efforts. Surely, they had everything perfected already. I was wrong. I was able to suggest small improvements on a weekly basis. Toyota knew something that I hadn’t yet learned, Lean is a Journey, not a destination. Strive for perfection but understand that Lean is “Continuous” Improvement. No matter how good you get, you can always be better. Likewise, do not expect your employees to immediately improve everything beyond the need of further revisions. The Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle is a circle for a reason. No one gets it “perfect” on their first attempt, or even their hundredth attempt, it is a continuous cycle.

No one ever said that Lean was “easy”. Some of the concepts and tools may seem very straightforward, but a lot of continuous effort is vital for any program’s success. And please, don’t “dabble” with Lean. If you are going to start the journey, please be prepared to make the investment of time, effort and resources. Those organizations who dabble with it, end up with a frustrated and broken culture. Lean works [PERIOD]. It will pay you dividends for as long as you put in the effort, so go get started!

Josh Sanchez