Are You Lean? by Kevin McManus
First published in Industrial Engineer magazine August 2001
I am a lean guy. I've physically been a lean guy for the majority of my life, and I have been thinking ‘lean' for at least the past fifteen years. How do I know I'm lean? I don't like waste, I believe that the customer determines process value, and I am not embarrassed to call myself an Industrial Engineer in public. Because of my tenure as a lean guy, I have been watching with amusement the dynamics of the lean bandwagon as it rolls by on the trail towards high performance.
I also participate in the lean discussion group that provides me with at least five e-mails a day. I can read these thoughts to keep track of what people are asking about, arguing over, and recommending to each other. It is really interesting to see how issues I have been a part of trying to resolve over the years keep coming back up. How do you compensate people fairly for their lean efforts? Should we use a suggestion system to support our lean efforts? How do you build lean tools into a job description? Should you use a formal team process to help the lean program grow?
The answers to those questions, and others, are not near as important as the questions themselves. What would come to mind if you replaced the word ‘lean' with words such as employee involvement, total quality management, reengineering, learning organization, or six sigma? This is the succession of popular programs over the past twenty years. Questions such as these have been common with each program, bandwagon, fad, wave, or rage (you pick the phrase that best suits your mood).
We attempt to introduce these tools and concepts to people by changing the words we use, providing one or more days of training, giving people an hour or so a week to work on the new thing, issuing mugs and hats, and writing a whole lot of e-mails. Three to six months of intense effort is expected to shift a high percentage of behaviors and beliefs that have been developing over years, both at work and away from the job. Without a tangible crisis, excellent leadership, or a greenfield site to work in, almost every such program is doomed from the start if we continue to largely do what we have always done. What's your definition of insanity?
To have a lean organization, you need a clear picture of your key customers and their requirements, effective and aligned processes, and a whole lot of lean thinkers. If you would like to know if your organization is lean or not, here is a simple way to find out. Take five minutes to ask each employee in your organization three easy questions, record the results, and do a Pareto analysis on them. What are those powerful questions you might ask? Here are they are.
How much waste do you have in your job processes? This question exposes the employee's knowledge of two key terms – waste and process. Will they define their process waste with the customer in mind? Do they know how their daily job is both a process of its own and part of other work systems?
What is the average daily cost of this waste? This question gives you both a business literacy assessment and an indication of the employee's ability to link their daily job to the costs of doing business. The word ‘average' is used to check if the employee also has knowledge of costs trends over time.
What process improvements have you made to reduce process waste? Defining cycles of improvement is a key acid test in the Baldrige Quality process. Key responses to look for here are I don't have time, they won't listen to me, and why should I make them any richer. Keep in mind that this question, like the others, has a high potential for soliciting a ‘deer in the headlights' look.
As you record your results, make special note to document the number of blank stares you get when you interview your people. Reducing these two percentages should be key metrics in assessing your initial progress towards becoming a lean organization. This survey process will let you know the degree to which lean concepts and practices have penetrated the organization (such deployment is another key indicator of performance excellence).
I participate in current lean efforts, and promote lean tools, not because I want to be part of the ‘in crowd', but because I believe in what this line of thinking is all about. Plus, it provides an excellent opportunity to link lean thinking to industrial engineering, and in turn promote both the engineering focus and the institute. For example, IIE is part of a lean conference in December in Orlando. I will be there, and I hope many of you can make it as well. We can learn so much just from talking with each other informally.
What bothers me about it all is that we as a business society continue to focus more on the tools than on the systems that they will be used within. We fail to fix the systems, so it appears that the tools don't work. Will lean thinking survive? Will those of us who despise waste finally have a chance to regain our sanity, or are we destined to continue cringing each time we write a proposal that we know few will really read? Don't worry however – I see another bandwagon on the horizon, and it is heading our way. I wonder what this one will be called? Who knows, it might be the best one yet.
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“The only thing I know is that I do not know it all.” -- Socrates