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Why Starting With a Model Area is Key to Lean Transformation

by Danielle McGuiness
June 24, 2013

Why Starting With a Model Area is Key to Lean Transformation

by Danielle McGuiness
June 24, 2013 | Comments (10)

As TSSC’s Jamie Bonini explained at our 2013 Lean Transformation Summit, a key to successful lean implementation is setting up a model area. It seems simple, doesn’t it? Start in one area, focus your efforts on that area, working with team members in just that one area, and then spread that success through the organization. If it’s so easy, why do people struggle so much?

Since I manage on-site development inquiries at the Lean Enterprise Institute, I have the pleasure of speaking with many of our community members and customers. Day-in, day-out, I find myself having the the same conversations with people, which makes me think a lot of folks out there must be struggling with the same problems. It’s important for me to understand what they are struggling with so we can help them address their core business need. However, before we can get to that, we often spend a lot of time talking about what they think they want to do with this lean stuff. Do you know what the most common answer is? “Train EVERYBODY in lean thinking and practice!”

Let's think this through. For example, if you're struggling with meeting on time delivery, what value would there be in training your whole workforce? You might think it's something like "getting people to speak the same language" and have a similar understanding of the work, but all you're going to accomplish in a few days of training is an overview of lean principles and tools unless you've been working at lean for a while. One of the best things about of lean is how it makes work better for operators/staffers. If your team members don't actually see how lean thinking and practice makes people's jobs easier, they won’t be engaged. So how do you engage staff, make their jobs easier, and meet a real business need at the same time? Model area!

By taking apart a particularly problematic or painful process and looking at the work to be done, as a manager you see what usually prevents your team from meeting that 48 hour window and delivering value to the customer. Talking with your team (since they know the work best) and being there on the floor, increases engagement. Frequent communication helps keep everyone in the loop. Moreover, as process improvements begin to occur on the shopfloor and results are achieved, this generates pull from other parts of the organization. People begin to see the value in making the job easier for the operator. 

A model area is a great way to showcase the hard work you have put into creating problem solvers, modeling coaching behavior, bettering the work of the staffer, and getting closer and closer to meeting the needs of all your customers. More importantly, you can use your model area to help other parts of the organization learn. After all, continuous improvement and learning is the name of the game. 

How's your model area doing? Have you set one up yet?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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10 Comments | Post a Comment
John T Bushling June 26, 2013
4 People AGREE with this comment
Agree 100%!  Creating a model area, center of excellence, etc., is a great way to start.  Choose an area with a high probability of success and high visibility.  Others will witness the transformation.  Those in the sucessful transformation area will talk-up their experience.  Carefully choosing your initial area is key.  You don't want to go down in flames and then try to spread it.   Nothing suceeds like success

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Jamie Flinchbaugh June 26, 2013
11 People AGREE with this comment

I was working with Jamie at Chrysler when we focused our change strategy on building model lines, but we called them something different. We called them Learning Laboratories. There is a subtle but vital difference.

Model lines are basically just building an example of what it should look like. I've been to many, many companies who said "Toyota came in here and built a model line....now, where was that again?" They had an example of what the end state might look like, but not a means to create it again.


The main output of a Learning Laboratory is learning and capability. It's the ability to create the change. It's primary purpose is learning. And it's primary method of learning is through experimentation...hence, the laboratory. Every environment is different, and you have to learn what works best in that environment. 

Jamie Flinchbaugh, Lean Learning Center 

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Devin Reinbold June 26, 2013
Great thread! At my company, we had an issue with capacity doubling in a matter of months which at our current process, bogged our paint department. This area, being one of our largest bottlenecks, we proceeded to work on process flow and communications to and from this department. With the plan in place, we simply painted lines on the floor and displayed norm from out-of-norm and like clock work, we saw an immediate decrease in the amount of paint used, and are able to do the same amount of work in 40% less time

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Chris Benn June 26, 2013

I agree with Jamie somewhat in that a model area alone may not quite be enough. The reason I say that is because having tried a few model areas often the feedback is 'yeah well of course it got better, they poured a load of money and time into it and we will never get that'.


Obviously the comment is a perception because they would get that as well but this can create some negativity, which I lso think means the area selected is absolutely critical i.e. if its already perceived as an area that gets attention some envy may set in or if its the basket case it can be perceived as 'they always get money wasted on them and don't have anything good to show for it' syndrome.

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Danielle McGuiness June 27, 2013
I agree with Devin as well-great thread!

  I would argue that it doesn't matter where you start, meaning that it doesn't have to be an absolutely critical area for it to be a model area. Actually, sometimes it's best to not start in the "they always get money" type areas. It puts slightly less risk to the organization to move ahead in the creation of a model area with the # 2 dept. and also gives others a chance to shine and think differently


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Ramamurthy June 27, 2013

I could agree with the comments above on the need for a "leaning center". I designed just such a learning center and call it the "Gemba Institute of Management". This instiute was intended to teach managers opening our new fulffilment centers how to design, sustain and continuously improve standard work systems. It was a 13day affair where all learning took place under live production conditions.

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Jon Skogsfjord July 03, 2013

I agree that a model area is a great way to start up certain lean methods and visualize challenges in the organization which can be solved by using lean thinking.

I agree further with those of you having mentioned that model area is not enough for a Lean transformation. I have been through a few of them myself, and experienced that when people from the model area meet other parts of the organization it don’t always work. If the model area for example is in production, they very soon have to deal with planners, purchasers, suppliers, leadership etc. and if they not are an active part of the lean transformation, the model might end as a good presentation on a lean event. Don't let it stop you in using model areas, but be sure you have the leadership onboard, and focus on the overall lean transformation. My experience is that lean is a long term philosophy, not always suitable for demonstrating quick paybacks.

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Bill Robinson July 19, 2013
It is so true. I worked on a project that was organization wide and it was very difficult.  However I am now working on one for our finance dept and that seems to be at this point much different because our focus is specifc to one area. With the hopeful  success of this we can then gain momentum..

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Danielle McGuiness July 24, 2013
results build pull. 

please keep us posted on how things are going.  


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Skip Matty July 26, 2013
We use this concept on a larger scale to rollout best practices across multipe distribution centers.  We will choose a site to model and pilot a new process or process improvement before rolling out to the entire network.

This approach allows us to develop a best practice in a controlled environment before implementing in mulitple loctions.  We can learn from mistakes and modify our solution before the mass rollout.  It also gives us the ability to pull the plug on a solution that does not produce the desired result.  


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