Much like anything over-used and spread before those singing praises have done a lot of research, Lean is a concept that sometimes, despite the best of intentions, misses its mark. Lean principles aren’t particularly tricky, but with many offshoots and brands of the ideology, it can be easy for new Lean managers to get caught up in misinformation.
At its core, lean is about eliminating all kinds of waste from your business. It sounds simple enough, but one of the biggest problems for many newbies is changing your concept of just what “waste” is. Once you’ve got a grasp on that, you need to move onto individual strategies that can help you eliminate that waste. In this article, we’re going to go over how to accomplish both of these tasks as a manager who may be new to Lean by exploring unique facets of this management type and how they interact with elements of your business.
One of the largest differences between Lean management and traditional styles of management is that in a traditional methodology your primary (and nearly sole) concern is the end of the line result. While Lean is of course concerned with achieving superior end results, its focus is on the processes that get you there. In this sense, what you learn and practice as a Lean manager is more about making individual pieces work together efficiently than having a tunnel-vision focus on numbers and figures at the end of the cycle.
The Relationship Between Lean management, Waste Elimination, and Continual Improvement
“If someone tells you that “lean management is this” and not something else, if someone puts it in a box and ties a bow around it and presents it in a neat package with four walls around it, then that someone knows not of what they speak. Why? Because it is in motion and not a framed picture hanging on the wall. It is a melody, a rhythm, and not a single note.” – Lawrence M. Miller, Management Meditations
While perhaps a bit poetic, Lean management is indeed an art best approached with “educated guesses” and an open mind. It’s also a conglomerate of several “big ideas.”
Two of the most common things people will tell you that Lean is “about” are waste elimination and continual improvement. By extension, you’ll run into phrases like “improvement culture” and others. The important thing to recognize is that these are not independent ideas but instead are intertwined necessarily. The easiest way to explain the relationship between these two ideas in particular is that waste elimination is a form of continual improvement. For Lean managers, continually improving your workplace is the goal, waste elimination is a large multi-tool, and the various Lean strategies you pick up are individual attachments to further your goal.
First things first, redefine your definition of waste. In Lean, anything that doesn’t add value to the final product or utility your customer uses is waste. This means that “waste” goes far beyond our usual use of the word. In the workplace, waste can refer to:
products that must be re-worked
worker injury and illness
And that list is not exhaustive. Training yourself to view the loss or excess of any of these things as waste will move you a long way toward understanding Lean.
Continual improvement is a blanket under which most Lean strategies and ideas lie, but it’s important to understand what is meant by the phrase. Continual improvement means you’re always working to better your operation, but there are a few caveats.
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Improvements are best carried out with a focus; trying to get too many things changed at once is a surefire way to frustrate yourself and end up not getting much done at all.
Don’t expect things too quickly. You always want to be moving toward positive results, but “improvement” by definition is a change in conditions over time and you need to recognize small successes along the way, rather than getting caught up in waiting for something big to come along or change all at once.
Lean Management and People
A focus on people is essential to any management style, and Lean’s principles make this all the more vital. People are involved at every level of Lean management, starting with your employees. When evaluating your Lean improvement efforts, make sure you are involving as many people as possible in each project.
“But wait,” you say, “won’t taking so many people away from their tasks and involving them actually waste time?!” Alright, you’ve caught me on this one: Getting everyone up to speed and receiving quality input and ideas on a project may take them away from current tasks, but remember: Lean is all about the long term. Investing in new viewpoints and ideas about what needs to be improved – and how it can be done – is going to pay off in the long run.
At the other end of the cycle, you have your customers. As mentioned, a big part of waste management is cutting out anything that is currently a part of your process but offers no better end value to your customer. For example, using time on a product feature that your customer doesn’t want or use means you’re wasting resources. Likewise, if there are needs or wants your customers have that aren’t yet being met by your product, you need to find ways to take time and resources out of one area of production and dedicate them to addressing those wants and needs.
Lean Management “Others”
Some of the best advice anyone can offer with regards to lean management is to simply be holistic in your approach. Look for ways to integrate Lean ideas into every aspect of your business, from safety, to company/staff meetings, to your labeling and signage, to your workplace layout. A simple investment such as purchasing an industrial label maker (like one of these from our LabelTac family) which can print vinyl labels can help to better organize your workspace. This seems like a small step but has the potential to yield big results in regards to Lean.
Sometimes opportunities to improve your workplace indirectly also present themselves in obscure ways – such as changes that improve worker satisfaction, and thus motivate higher efficiency – so always keep an eye out for these types of opportunities as well.
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