Lean manufacturing: Are you over-implementing?
October 12, 2022 | 4:16 pm CDT

It’s in the best interest of every business to improve, so I’d be willing to bet whether or not you claim to be on a “lean journey,” you wake up every day trying to make your business better. There is likely a flurry of activity with people making improvements on the shop floor. Management is constantly wondering how to improve processes. And the ownership has an ear to the ground at all times for new equipment that could help the organization’s throughput.

We all agree, improving is good. When it comes to improvements, it’s analogous to investing money. The more you do the better. At least this sure is the common belief. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Here’s a look at the path of a simple improvement.

  • Step 1 — Discover some amount of frustration with the current process, enough that you’d like to fix it.
  • Step 2 — Generate an idea that solves at least 50% of the frustration (more on this later).
  • Step 3 — Usually you tell someone about it, discussing he problem and your idea to fix it.
  • Step 4 — Sketch up the idea, or develop a plan to make or implement it.
  • Step 5 — Make the improvement.
  • Step 6 — Train anyone involved on the new and improved idea.
  • Step 7 — Deal with the backlash of the ones who don’t feel like it was an improvement.
  • Step 8 — Break our old habits and develop new ones.

Wow!

When you really break down the physical and mental energy that goes into even a simple improvement, there’s a lot more than meets the eye.

Now there is no doubting the compounding effect of making improvements. It works.

And without it, your business will be susceptible to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I’m paraphrasing here, but it’s along the lines of, “Nothing stays the same; left alone things always degrade.”

That’s true even if you’re improving every day. But is there another side to this coin? Let’s flip it and find out.

Hit by a train
Last week we were working with a very high-end custom kitchen manufacturer in Ontario, Canada. Big shout out to the team at Lighthouse Cabinets, they are all lean maniacs and absolutely crushing it.

I was out on the shop floor with the owner, and he made a comment that stopped me dead in my tracks. Jason said, “We’re making so many improvements, I feel like we’re not getting good at anything.”

It was like the world stopped spinning, time stood still, I couldn’t move, and then I was hit by a freight train.  
You can see the full video of our visit to Lighthouse on the Quantum Lean YouTube channel.

I have seen this pain manifest on many shop floors, I have experienced it in my own factory and I was guilty of this personally at the highest level.

I distinctly recall my whole team being up in arms because from the time they clocked out Friday until the time they clocked in on Monday, I had revamped the entire shop, and I mean literally. CNCs moved, line reconfigured, it was like walking into a different building. And that happened a lot in the early years.

For anything to compound to have a positive affect, it has to compound longer than it took to develop and implement.

If it’s a genuine two-second improvement, you’re probably free to make those as rapidly as humanly possible.
If it’s a product modification, for example, changing the way you make something or altering a process, perhaps this should have a period of time to simmer before changing it again.

Remember the saying, “the first one is the worst one.” You’ll probably experience the most pain right after you make a change. If you don’t take the proper time to work through that, then you might be ditching a half decent improvement when your team wants to go back to the way you used to do it. Try not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The concept seems so simple, and I’m sure if you’re reading this you’re like, well-duh, obviously.  But isn’t that always the case with hindsight.

Stop over-implementing
Here are the top three things to help combat over implementing:

  1. Test all product and process changes off-line. Maybe come in on the weekend and run the experiment, and put things back the way they were while you analyze the data
  2. When setting your improvement target always shoot for 50% improvement. Any less than that it’s probably not worth doing, because you likely have bigger fish to fry somewhere else in the plant. Any more than that, if it doesn’t work, it might cost you big time.
  3. Give your improvements a chance to blossom. Try to get your team on board with the fact it’s going to be uncomfortable in the beginning, but you need them to band together and work through the small nuances. The famous saying is “fail forward.” Remember that you wanted to make that change for a reason. Fix and tweak the new process as unforeseen problems pop up.

If your team needs help, or just a helping hand now and then, or maybe it’s as simple as just getting a question answered, we’re listening.

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About the author
Brad Cairns | President/Owner/C-Level

Brad Cairns is the senior principal at Quantum Lean and is dedicated to improving the woodworking industry in North America using lean methods. He also owns Best Damn Doors, a cabinet door manufacturing business in St. Thomas, Ontario. You can reach Brad at 519-494-2883 or [email protected]