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Ask Art: Does Lean Really Work Everywhere?

by Art Byrne
September 19, 2013

Ask Art: Does Lean Really Work Everywhere?

by Art Byrne
September 19, 2013 | Comments (2)

People often ask me whether or not Lean can be universally applied. The many versions of this question share a common misconception that lean is just some manufacturing thing. I’ve found that lean can be applied everywhere. Here’s why.

Lean principles apply to the basic work of any organization. Many people, for example, believe that Lean does not apply to low volume one-of-a-kind type of production. They believe that “We build snowflakes” and are therefore immune to the strategic benefits of Lean. In fact, my experience is that there is more value to be found in implementing Lean for a job shop company than there is for a high volume standard products company. This is because job shop companies have processes that they use to make their products, just like standard product companies do. When these processes are aligned in a flow configuration and looked at through the lens of takt time and standard work there are tremendous gains in quality, productivity and most important for the job shop in lead time reduction.

If, for example, Lean allows you to reduce your lead-time from 13 weeks to 2 weeks, you will have a significant advantage over your competitors. This is a double advantage for the job shop as you should be able to charge more for your speed whereas a standard products company has a much harder time capitalizing on this.

Other folks question whether non-manufacturing companies can ever enjoy the benefits of Lean. To them I suggest they get rid of the idea that “it is harder for non-manufacturing companies to get results.” In fact, I’ve found that non-manufacturing companies tend to realize even bigger results. My theory for this is that there’s so much room for improvement in these companies that even small improvements and shifts in thinking make a huge difference. As a rule, many of these companies simply automate (computerize) their waste instead of actually improving their processes. Which creates huge opportunities!

If you are looking to apply Lean, my advice is that you approach it just like a manufacturing company might. Ask your people: What are the value streams? What do the value stream maps look like? Where do you see waste in your processes? How can you remove it and make things flow? Once you can clearly see the problem, the solutions become clear and simple.

The common challenge you’ll face in any setting is the resistance from those members of your workforce and team who won’t want to change anything. I once helped a life insurance company go from 48 days to underwrite a life insurance policy to less than 20, boosting its output from processing 15 policies per week to 88. This is 88 lives! Well, guess what? We did this by having four case managers sit next to/nearby one underwriter. In this configuration, they began to work as a team and ended up getting great results. The problem at first was that they hated this new configuration because “it wasn’t professional.” “Underwriters are supposed to only sit with other underwriters,” they said.

This is where good leadership comes in. Are you in business to satisfy the customer as efficiently as you can or to keep your underwriters happy? How can you help your team members understand why you’re making the changes you’re making and how you can encourage them to make these kinds of changes themselves? 

Focus on the core lean principles and you will be able to successfully lead Lean in any company, in any setting.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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2 Comments | Post a Comment
Paul Cary September 19, 2013
4 People AGREE with this comment
Art I agree, Lean is about solvong customer problems while maximizing available resources. All organizations are process driven and lean tools help remove obstacles to "process flow". As a lean practitioned for many for many years and helping folks first of all "see" obstacles to information and/or material flow, I have evolved to first focus on knowledge flow. A Sensei or champion must first find the most effective way of how to flow "knowledge" to everyone in the organization in order to create a culture of "lean thinkers" who must be alligned with the "purpose". All organizations passionate about transformation will bennifit from the incredible power of a culture of "lean thinkers"  

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Bob Hubbard October 10, 2013
Hi Art, I have to admit having the same, "how can this manufacturing methodology work in a transactional environment" years ago. Then I sat down with my team to map the customer focused value stream. After we mapped the current state, we were hard pressed to identify ANY step in the process that a customer would consider value added. That was a hard lesson to learn, but it helped us make the case for eliminating many NVA process steps. To that point, improvement efforts focused on how to perform a certain step more efficiently. Before we began mapping the value stream, we never stopped to ask ourselves if a step should be done at all. Lean thinking may not apply everywhere, but I continue to look for instances where it does not apply... and I've been unable to find one. Thanks for the great post! Bob Hubbard AT&T, Six Sigma Black Belt, I

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Search Posts:
Problem Solving to Align Purpose, Process and People
Ernie Richardson & Tracey Richardson
Learning to See / Creating Continuous Flow Set
By Mike Rother, John Shook, and Rick Harris
Womack on Lean Management (DVD)
By James P. Womack