These Are The Best Ways To Improve Your Lean Efforts

For most businesses these days, Lean Six Sigma is an extremely common business practice to be implemented, but it isn’t always as easy as certain guides, or especially successful case studies, might make it seem. One of the biggest things that happens in Lean for new companies is that they struggle to use tools effectively and get distracted by other techniques when they are close to doing so. Obviously, you want to make sure that the tools you are using to increase efficiency aren’t somehow holding you back when you get to implementation. In this article we are going to go over several ways in which you can make sure that the positive effects of your Lean efforts are amplified and as large as possible. Some of the tips we’ll talk about will apply to some Lean strategies more than others, but all of them can be easily incorporated into your overall Lean methodology toolbox.

Lean and VSM

One of the biggest benefits to using Lean techniques is that they help you rule out the problem areas of your business. This means you can take a look at your overall system and hone in on the parts that are slowing you down and wasting time, energy, money, and other resources. To get this initial perspective, on of the best ways you can start is by visually mapping out your entire business. These maps, sometimes called value stream maps or VSMs, are flowcharts or tree type diagrams that allow you to get a top-down view of your business. All departments, employees, processes, and ingoing and outgoing orders are represented on a value stream map.

The next step is to attach facts and figures to the various stops within your VSM. This means taking numbers from your own data and attaching them to the appropriate processes; accurately representing this information is what allows you to extrapolate problem areas from visual data and VSM’s. You can then aim your projects at these areas in particular.

Notice how the title of this section says “but only starting.” The reason I’ve written the title like this is because one of the biggest mistakes that people make when getting into Lean is actually trying to tackle too many projects at once. This means that while it is a great idea to start with an overview, the best thing you can do, especially when you’re new to the process, is to then step back from your overall assessments and focus intently on one project at a time.

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Goal Setting

So let’s say you have zeroed in on a particular process that you want to change, now what? A great Lean technique that helps you analyze a specific process is the Gemba walk. Gemba walks are all about making observations about a very specific area of your business, and using them to implement improvements. To conduct a Gemba walk, simply place yourself in the area around a particular stage of production and make as many observations as possible, both positive and negative, about what you observed. At the end of your walk, feel free to interview workers in that stage of production as well and see if you can glean any insights from what they have to say. This Lean technique is a great way to cut through the clutter and find specific areas of need that you can change right away.

Once you have a good idea of an area that needs improved, you are going to need to practice effective goal setting techniques in order to stay focused and achieve the results you are looking for. In the business world, there is a common acronym, SMART, with regards to goal setting. The acronym stands for specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, and timely, criteria which form the basis of an attainable goal. So if you find something that you want to change in production as a result of your Lean inquiries, be sure that it:

  • has a clearly outlined desired outcome (specific)
  • is associated with a number of units appropriate to the task at hand (measurable)
  • has a specific party or individual who will be responsible for carrying the improvement out (assignable)
  • is feasible given the available resources (realistic)
  • has a specific and appropriate timeframe for completion (timely)

Don’t Let Perfect Get In The Way Of “Better”

Sometimes business owners and managers implementing lean strategies tend to jump the gun. They want to see big results right away, and as a consequence get ahead of themselves and end up achieving very little in the end. Alternatively, they may see the opportunity to make small changes, but hesitate to make them as they still may fall short of the ideal. Keep in mind that Lean is about “continual improvement” and always has been, meaning by definition that you probably are never going to get things exactly perfect. That’s not a problem, in fact, it just means that you always have a constant motivator to keep getting better. For this reason alone, you should feel comfortable and confident about implementing small changes. Besides, if your head is in the right space, you are already looking at your business as a long-term investment in your own future and those of many others. As this is the case, even small changes can, over time, add up to big savings or improvements; don’t underestimate the effectiveness of multiple small changes in the long haul, doing so negates some of the main principles of Lean.

Consider Other Goals

“Don’t get into it just to save money,” Johns Hopkins’ Richard Hill said. Healthcare professionals are motivated more by issues of patient safety and providing quality care. Johns Hopkins, for instance, adopted Six Sigma in 2001 after the death of a pediatric patient due to medical error. According to Deployment Leader Winner, the hospital aligns project priorities with the Institute of Medicine’s aims of safety and efficiency.” –

This quote comes directly from an article about how hospitals have implemented Lean strategies, and is a heartbreaking reminder that there is more to Lean thinking than just saving money. The loss of life, injuries, wasted materials, wasted time, unused products, and more all accompany money as goals of and items to be addressed within continual improvement culture. While you may not be tasked with the high-stakes job of caring for sick children and other individuals, as is the case with hospitals, the safety of your own workers and contractors should be of the utmost importance when implementing these techniques and measuring their effectiveness.

Visual Cues and Techniques

Lean-Tools-Floor-TapeMuch in the same way that you used value stream mapping to get an idea of the overall state of your business, visual cues and techniques can help enhance the effect of other Lean efforts. One common way to do this is by using floor tape, which you’ll notice in many, many warehouses and production facilities. Colored floor tape and similar tools can help to create lanes and zones that visually represent the flow of your production and can also help to improve workplace safety by separating certain processes and work teams.

Additionally, labeling is a big part of effectively organizing a visual workplace. Labels can actually be a direct piece of a continual improvement effort. New systems can be hard sometimes for employees to grasp, so labels are a great way to remind workers of new ways to do things that you implemented as a result of your Lean assessments.

Lean is all about the balance between the bigger and long-term pictures and the individual tasks that you can complete for improvement in the short term. Keeping this in mind should help you as you continue down the Lean road and develop your own strategies.

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