This is a question I get quite often. It always comes from people who have grown up in traditional batch companies with functional or silo organizational structures. They somehow see their own value adding activities as just a given. Nothing more can be done. For example, if they have a six-week lead-time and have always had a six-week lead-time, well, then, they just have to create a strategy that lets them overcome the obstacle of a six-week lead-time. They in effect are asking their customers to conform to their lead-time as opposed to them trying to conform to the customer.
But let's take a simple example: two companies compete, Company A and Company B. Each has the exact same equipment; the only difference is that A takes one hour to change over the equipment from one product to the next while B, without any big capital spending, has figured out how to change over its equipment in one minute. So, the question is which one has the lower cost and best customer service, A or B? Now I’m sure that you came up with the right answer of company B. Now ask yourself: is this setup reduction advantage strategic, or just some inwardly focused “manufacturing thing?”
To help you out here, it of course is very strategic. Before you can deliver more value to your customers you have to remove the waste from your own value adding activities and that is what was done in this example.
Lean is all about removing waste from your value adding activities to get to a state of continuous improvement. It is strategic because it allows you to deliver more value to your customers than your competitors can. Therefore the main focus is always on the customer. Determine what the customer sees as value and then focus your efforts on removing the waste that stands in the way of delivering that value. This is true for any business, not just manufacturers. Once you have removed the first layer of waste then you go back again and again to keep removing more. The idea of continuous improvement is not a dream, it is the reality of how a lean company behaves every day. There is no such thing as “when will we be done?” when talking about continuous improvement.
So, don’t be fooled, all of the things we do in lean to improve our value adding activities are aimed at being able to deliver more value to our customers. As a result they are always customer-focused and not inward-focused.