Easier, better, faster, cheaper. No four words describe the lean business philosophy in simple, common sense terms more concisely than those. It is quite possible that the reason so many business owners have been reluctant to embark on the lean journey is because those four descriptive words are too simple. How is it possible that lean thinking can deliver those results with so little investment?
That concept seems contrary to the technological claims of all of the equipment and software providers to our industry. It has been engrained in our thinking that the more sophisticated the equipment and computer systems the greater the quality and output, and therefore the greater the margin on product sold. I want you to set aside that traditional thinking and focus on improving your business through its existing resources.
If you have been following my column for any length of time you know some of the companies that I have worked with, and you also know that you can contact them at any time to see if the results I claim they are achieving are for real. You can also go to YouTube and access the growing inventory of videos for The Center for Lean Learning to see how simple, common sense improvements, implemented by process owners, are making a difference for the employee and the entire enterprise.


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The easy part

The "easier" outcomes are directed towards the people who perform the various tasks in your business from the front office to the delivery process. Not too many process owners initially buy into the assertion that their work is going to get easier. It takes seeing the results for themselves. How is it that lean thinking makes a person's job easier?
I hate to keep using the same word over and over, but it is quite simple. Is it the value adding steps in a process that frustrate and fatigue a person or is it all of the wasted motion and non-value adding steps that tire people out? It is waste that extends the process time, adds extra work to an otherwise easy task, and adds cost that eats away at the margin. But don't take my word for it, go to gemba (where the work is done) and see for yourself.

Seeing with new eyes

Going to gemba is something I have started to do at the end of each of my training sessions. Once the participants have learned about some of the lean tools and techniques, we go on a tour of the place they have worked at for months or even years. This time they see the environment with a new set of eyes.
The results of this exercise are amazing. Participants observe and absorb the activities that people do for a while and then return to the classroom to discuss their observations. Invariably the discussion centers on how much waste of motion or waste of transportation the people are doing. All that extra work, which adds no value to the product, is exhausting and prevents maximum use of time and energy. Eliminating waste through the application of lean thinking captures lost available time and reduces fatigue.
Besides the work environment getting "better" the quality of the output gets better through lean thinking as well. If you are not part of an organization that has embarked on the lean journey, chances are good that you don't have a very robust training program and probably don't have standardized work processes either.

Lean training

Most companies use a person who is considered to be an expert at a particular task to train a new person on that task. Aside from being a resident expert, what other credentials does that person have as a trainer? Probably none. What procedures are being passed on to the new person? Only those that the expert has been using. How much of the training will the new person retain? It has been my experience that a person trained in this manner retains less than 50 percent of what the expert told them and reinvents the rest. What is the lean solution?
In this case there are two Lean tools for stabilizing the work place, and ensuring continuity and consistency in the output. The tools are Workplace Organization, or the 5Ss, and Standardized Work. Both of the tools are foundational to a successful lean transformation.
Workplace Organization gets all of the clutter and non-essential stuff out of the workplace so it doesn't interfere with the task being performed. It also adds stability to the work area through a process of identifying and labeling all of the necessary things and designating locations for them. That helps a new person get acclimated to the area quickly and eliminates searching for tools, fixtures, supplies, etc. to do the task.
There is only one best way to do any job. That is where Standardized Work comes in. Once the best practice has been determined for a task it is documented so every person doing the task does it in the same way. Standardized Work ensures continuity and consistency in the process by everyone all the time. With Standardized Work as a document in hand, the new person not only has hands-on training from the expert who is performing the task to standard, but he also has the document as a reference for when the trainer isn't available.

Flow improves velocity

"Faster" is simply the culmination of eliminating waste, establishing a standardized process, organizing the workplace, and connecting internal customers and suppliers to create flow. Creating flow improves the velocity of product through the enterprise and reduces lead time to the customer. When potential customers hear about the lead time that you are achieving they will be flocking to your door. Can you imagine the response you will receive from a customer placing a new order today when you ask him what time tomorrow he will be ready to accept delivery? Seems impossible? It isn't.
When the work becomes "easier" for the process owner and the quality of the environment and the output is "better" and the velocity of the product going through enterprise is "faster," the end result is that all of the output will be "cheaper." Cheaper output means improved margin and growth opportunity.
Remember, "There isn't anything that can't be done, there are only those things that have yet to be done."

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