Tackling targeted improvements

Once you have declared “we are a lean company,” this means that you have set your business off in the direction of continuous improvement through the elimination of waste. 

In the beginning this is quite easy to do. There are labels to be printed, old messes to get cleaned up, shadow boards to make, toolboxes to organize and the ever-important get everything off the floor and onto wheels. 

The factory is abuzz with improvements and morale is riding pretty high. This will keep your team busy, but after the low-hanging fruit then what? 

Solving real problems
Perhaps your factory is a lot like mine. We set aside time for everyone to make improvements each day, but as time passed, fewer and fewer people were actually making an “improvement.” This was still better than not doing it at all. But when higher than ever demand, brought totally unacceptable lead time, we realized we needed to get a lot better at solving real problems.

Don’t get me wrong, we will never abandon our 3S roots (Sort, Sweep, Standardize), but having 25 people wander around for half an hour creating shadow boards and labels was not going to get the job done. Our customers were losing patience and something significant had to happen, right now.

When you walk out into any factory, I’m positive we can all see waste everywhere. Taking a shotgun blast at process improvements was too sporadic and slow. We needed to know what specifically had to be done to move the needle, and we wanted to put everyone on that! We were after a solution that increased improvement suggestions, empowered people’s creative genius, increased completed improvement projects and simultaneously allowed people more time on the production floor to add value for our customers.

Hmm…. Not what I would consider a small challenge!

Target conditions
Toyota has popularized creating what they call “target conditions.” This can be related to anything, production numbers, cleanliness, training, etc. The important part is that it is made very clear with the entire team, and it’s someone’s job to know why it’s not happening. This person’s function is to strive to remove all barriers between the current state and target condition. 

Typically everyone in the building is already too busy to add this role to their job title as well. It does add one layer of indirect labor. I know what you’re thinking, “This doesn’t sound very lean.” But just imagine what would happen when you get improvements made every day that actually move the needle, it doesn’t take very long to make up for a little bit of extra labor. 

Don’t get me wrong, it was a scary move for us as well, however, I’m not into reinventing wheels, if Toyota says it works, then it probably works.

Target conditions graphics for lean manufacturing.
Graphics like these can keep your team on target to solve important problems, meet goals, and identify other areas for improvement.

Tackling targets
So, what happened? Since demand was high, we made our first target condition achieving takt time (rate of customer demand). That was equivalent to a little over a 25 percent increase in throughput. There is no question we all looked at each other wondering if this was even possible.  But in a worst-case scenario, we figured we’d learn something. We sure learned something: We learned the power of setting a target condition and making it someone’s job to remove barriers was a bit more powerful than we anticipated. 

We could not believe the problems we discovered and how easy it was to fix them once we knew exactly what they were. Within three days, not only was our first target condition met, but also we exceeded it.

Focusing on targets
The power of setting that target condition seems to be what it does for our brains. It provides a crystal-clear focus for all of our improvement efforts. In the past, every morning would be a barrage of problems we needed to fix, most of them changing daily depending on what went wrong the day before. We would talk in circles for 20 minutes and then nothing would get done. Now everything is simplified, and we worry about only what is in the way of reaching our target condition. Everything else, we just continue to arm wrestle with until it eventually pops up as a target condition, and we fix it then.

If we were to break this down into actionable steps it would look something like this:
Step 1: Establish a target condition for a particular work area.
Step 2: Have a team leader monitor what’s actually happening. The minute something happens contrary to the target condition, it’s their responsibility to find out what happened, making detailed notes.
Step 3: Compile all notes on how many times you deviated from target condition and why.
Step 5: Pick the biggest offender, and solve that problem.
Step 6: Rinse and repeat daily.

Biggest offender
Remember, focus only on the biggest offender. Don’t worry about the rest of them. You’ll get to it. Cluttering your efforts with 15 things doesn’t take into account the butterfly effect. As you solve each problem, other problems may arise or go away, you don’t know until you step back and monitor again.

In the past two weeks, my factory has solved three of the biggest problems that have been plaguing us since day one. I almost feel unstoppable now. 

A personal BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal) is to understand how a factory can get to zero defects, I never understood how this was possible, but for the first time, I can see light at the end of that tunnel. This is our next target condition. I have absolutely no doubt my team will figure it out.

There’s no reason your results couldn’t be similar, if you have any questions on how to set this up, feel free to drop me a line I’m very excited about this and look forward to sharing with the world.  


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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].