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Advice from The Gemba: Basic Lean Tools with Huge Impacts

by Lean Leaper
August 10, 2016

Advice from The Gemba: Basic Lean Tools with Huge Impacts

by Lean Leaper
August 10, 2016 | Comments (3)

It's easy to get caught up in the hottest new lean trends, but it's important not to completely forget the fundamentals we first built our lean knowledge upon. Many of the most basic lean tools can have a deceptively large impact on your lean transformation goals. Three lean practitioners weight in with their favorite simple-but-powerful lean tools:

Greg Lane (Lean Coach, Low Volume Lean Center)

When considering lean tools and artifacts I am cautious to rank them, as most lean practitioners know that the real change comes through the lean management system that drives behavioral change. With that said, the best part of lean is that it is a system which helps structure those behavioral changes. And when utilized with the proper understanding and continuous improvement thinking incorporated, lean tools can help support that structure. Therefore I would say my favorite tools are the visuals that drive behaviors. I want to clarify that visuals are probably the most poorly executed tool in my experience, with a 70 percent failure rate (meaning failure to drive behaviors in moving towards a learning organization).

Properly executed visual boards at various levels within the organization (e.g. plant boards, value stream boards, cell level boards, etc.) are one of the most critical tools to get right. This is especially true if said visual boards concern the following categories, which can lead to the huddle meetings that develop a reflective organization and lead to process improvement: 

  • People (including Safety)
  • Quality
  • Delivery
  • Cost sections

To understand if a board is becoming meaningful in this sense, try to understand the number of changes or iterations it has been through. If you have reached or surpassed four improvements/changes to the board it is probably beginning to serve its purpose. You can also check if the information is up-to-date (starting by verifying that it is handwritten) and leading to improvements. Finally, keep in mind that visualization is about respecting all team members, allowing you to work with the same information and engaging everyone’s mind in the improvement process.

For more information on visual and engaging methods of driving lean transformation, join Greg Lane’s new workshop, Aligning the Right Behaviors with Your Business Objectives, this October in San Diego, Cali.

Brent Wahba (President, Strategy Science Inc.)

Like chainsaws and blowtorches, lean tools can also be very useful…or incredibly dangerous if used the wrong way. Before starting to experiment with any tool, make sure you truly understand the problem the tool is intended to solve, learn to use the tool properly, and then make sure the tool really solves that problem before it becomes a standard. 

All of that said, if your problem is either a misalignment/incoordination between your overall strategy and lean implementation, or a missing compelling “need” for improvement, then I find that a simplified form of Strategy Deployment / Hoshin can be extremely effective in:

  1. Pointing everyone in the right strategic direction
  2. Measuring the critical gaps in achieving that strategy
  3. Coordinating who is doing what to turn strategy into reality and
  4. Uncovering some very specific needs for improvement activities (i.e. the gaps in how to solve the gaps). In doing this, we create shared understanding, alignment and commitment – all while instilling a basic version of improvement PDCA

The vast majority of organizations I have visited don’t have anything more than a cursory “we’re doing lean because we want to get better” link to what the business really needs. And as we all know, when customers or the realities of daily work come calling, all that “good to do stuff” gets pushed aside. Used properly, however, Strategy Deployment turns improvement work INTO daily work, and it actually gets done. See “Make Broccoli (Or Lean) Taste Better Through Experiments” for an example.  

Amber Ansari (CEO, Precision Management Consulting LLC)

Visual management is one of my favorites. It requires minimal training for implementation, creates what I call "gemba at a glance," divides larger processes into smaller actionable items, and can simplify daily huddle meetings. It can also go a long way in helping foster a culture of creativity and continuous improvement - it's very intuitive to improve upon an existing visual management system. And it's also at the heart of many other lean tools – 5S, mistake-proofing (poka-yoke), and heijunka, to name a few.

I remember consulting with a client faced with persistent delays in processing of purchase orders (some as long as 10 weeks). Because of this, the company was plagued with backlogs, late payment penalties (well over $20,000 per year) and cluttered workstations as the late paperwork piled up.

In this case a simple visual management system helped us get organized and back on track. We made a large wooden cabinet with slots, which looked like a mail sorter. These slots were labeled with each of the four employees’ names. Each slot contained “open” paperwork and a folder. These folders were color-coded, so each employee knew what color folder belonged to them. If a slot contained “open" paperwork, since it was not in a folder and thus not a priority. However, if the color-coded folder contained some paperwork it was treated as a priority. We placed the box in a central location so everyone could see it at a glance on their way to their desks. When somebody saw paperwork in their colored folder, they immediately pulled it to process. If it was an “exception,” it went to the manager’s red folder. Exceptions were cases in which paperwork contained discrepancies or errors, which could be only be handled by the manager. When the manager saw his red folder getting populated, he knew it had to be handled immediately. 

As a result of this, the organization saw its processing time reduced to one week, a more even distribution of the workload, and much less back-and-forth communication since everyone knew exactly what was expected of them. And since exceptions were being routed to a single, red folder, it was visually evident that a great number of exceptions were emerging daily. This visual realization led to another kaizen, which was solely focused on reducing the number of exceptions. 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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3 Comments | Post a Comment
Andrew Bishop August 18, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Thanks for this.  In the "tools are not enough" focus we seem to be living with today, there's a bit of an "anti-tool" backlash.  It all needs to work together.  Culture, climate, leadership and reliable methods! 

The benefits of a visual workplace are manifold, going way beyond the comments in the post, above.  When there are no secrets about what should be happening and what is actually happening (at the levels of strategy, the shop floor, and everywhere in between) then people are freed to do their jobs, alignment is easier and more obvious, problems are apparent, and supervisors and managers can be more engaged in developing people and solving problems rather than needing to tell people what to do!  And the greater degree of autonomy afforded workers echos through motivation, engagement, and all that follows.

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Steve Guerin August 18, 2016

I like the comment is it possible to share this with my lean team?

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Andrew Bishop August 19, 2016


Why not?

I'm curious - which part of the comment got your attention,

 - thoughts on tools? or

 - thoughts on visual workplace?

What are your thoughts?

Reply »

Search Posts:
Lean Lexicon 5th Edition
By Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.
Lean Thinking, 2nd Edition
By James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones
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