W. Edwards Deming said, “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.” This applies equally to our task of lean transformation as it does to how we can reduce the waste in our target operations.
Do you see lean transformation itself as a repeatable process? Are there standard steps to transform your raw material (the current state) into your end product (a lean future state)? Is that process predictable and repeatable? Is that process robust and reliable? Robust enough for the complexities of your business? Is there waste in that process that can be removed?
I was struck by an excellent blog post on The Lean Post by Richard Sheridan, founder of Menlo Innovations, a software company using lean principles for software development. Rich makes an eloquent case that the software community has much to learn from Lean. His post made me think about the spread of lean practice itself and the community of people involved – external consultants, internal operational excellence teams, continuous improvement groups, and so on – all working towards implementing lean principles in order to improve organizations and create more value for customers. And it got me thinking about how well or even whether we are willing to use software.
I work with larger manufacturing companies who struggle to implement lean due to their complexity and dynamic variation. We classify them as high mix/low volume operations. Where complexity and variation are self-induced, we help them to simplify, but often it’s the products themselves, the manufacturing technology, and their customers who drive that complexity.
Let me get specific. No lean practitioner would recommend manual cards to maintain stock balances like we did before computers. Yet we are comfortable with using sticky notes on a wall for value stream mapping. And we’ll do that for a couple of products even when we know that there are dozens to hundreds to thousands of products whose map would not look anything like the few we picked. Why do we stick with manual methods? Is it because we don’t know any other way to do it? Or is it because we are comfortable with what we know and don’t want to change? Isn’t that the prime obstacle we all face in our target operations?
Here’s my guiding principle concerning the use of tools (including software) in lean transformation: Use the simplest tool possible. If purely visual replenishment is possible without any kanban cards, use that. If manual kanbans can work, that’s a great solution. Or a heijunka board, fine. But when you are faced with situations where these tools cannot manage the volume of data and the rate of change, it’s time to bring in tools that are built for that purpose.
One of my clients, for example, is a make-to-order electronics manufacturer of configured products producing 25,000 units per day. Kanban cards? Not going to get it done. Another produces far fewer units and is also make-to-order but the individual configuration of their products can have labor vary by up to 80% between units. They can’t possibly schedule manually as their business scales up.
The software community has taken a look at lean principles and changed their process introducing techniques of scrum, agile, and kanban. Now it’s time to take advantage of what software can provide. For far too long, there have been two camps – the lean camp and the IT camp – both competing for resources and management attention. It’s time to bridge that chasm to enable lean principles to be furthered by technology. In doing so we can unlock the demonstrated benefits of lean in high volume operations in far more businesses.
Ask yourself, how much waste is there in your lean transformation process?
- Determining runners, repeaters, and strangers - Mainly done with massive Excel manipulation. But how often does your product mix change? How often are you taking a fresh look to re-categorize. With the right software, this takes a few minutes.
- Recalculating kanban sizes – Most companies resize kanbans about every 6 months, some quarterly. Is that because the business volume and mix haven’t changed or because the process is overly manual between more Excel work and then changing cards and kanban boards on the floor? With the right software, this can be done in a few minutes.
- Calculating takt time – Many companies set a pace for production to match demand and construct production lines or cells to that pace. And then they lock in that pace regardless of changing business volume. With the right software, this can be done on a “what-if” basis to immediately see the impact of mix and volume changes throughout your operations including all the upstream impacts to feeder areas.
Does having the right software by itself transform your organization and your people? Not at all. We need a management system that enables people to own their processes and their improvements. But we also need to equip people with the right tools to address the problems they must solve. New software is emerging that is designed to reduce waste in the process of lean transformation itself and to reinforce lean principles of pull, flow, takt, and leveling.
We who are specialists in lean transformation can be an example, if we will. Lean physician, heal thyself!