Well, of course not. In fact, I can guarantee you that at least in the beginning (say the first couple of years) you will probably be creating or uncovering as many problems as you are solving. This is only common sense. After all, lean is almost the complete opposite of everything you have been taught in your traditional batch state. You are trying to go from batch to flow, from push to pull, from command-and-control to out-front hands-on leadership and from functional departments to value stream organizations. To be successful everything must change, from the way you do sales and marketing, to your accounting system, to your IT systems, to your human resources approach. What could go wrong?
Let’s start with the resistance of your senior management team and most likely your entire workforce. “This will never work here.” “We are not like those other companies.” “We tried something like this once and it failed.” You can push through this and start down the lean path anyway, but every time a problem arises, even several years into your lean journey, you will hear “See, I told you it wouldn’t work,” followed by a strong push to go back to the old way of doing it. And they will have plenty of ammunition.
Let’s take a few manufacturing examples first. When you move equipment from functional departments with six- to eight-week lead times into one-piece-flow cells, the fact that you haven’t maintained your equipment very well will jump out and bite you. If a machine in one of 10 functional departments in a batch state broke down, the machines in the other nine departments could keep working; and you had six to eight weeks to solve the problem due to all the excess inventory you had available. In a flow cell, however, if one machine stops then the other nine stop as well and you have a crisis. It will impact your customers. What do you do?
Another inevitable disruption will be the impact of doing many kaizens to make improvements as this reduces capacity during the kaizen week. You will probably fall behind. Moving from functional departments to value streams means that you will have to move all of your equipment, often multiple times, which will impact your capacity and ability to respond to customers. You can achieve a 90 percent reduction in setup time during a one week kaizen but getting it to stick is difficult and takes a great deal of management effort. Moving to one-piece-flow cells means that your operators now might have to be able to run eight to 10 machines in a cell, whereas in the batch state they only had to run one. You will need to train them. This takes time and reduces capacity while it is happening. It also might create pushback from the work force or arguments with the union if you have one.
The new one-piece-flow cells might have trouble producing to takt time at first and if production planning doesn’t take this into consideration you will cause stock-outs. Reducing inventory takes away your safety net and will cause stock-outs if you don’t do it correctly (first WIP, then raw, then finished goods). Getting your vendors on board is a whole other problem. The pressure to reduce inventory will have your people trying to get vendors to consign inventory instead of going to daily deliveries. This will result in even more inventory than you had before taking up space that you were trying to free up.
You will find that things you never paid attention to will suddenly become major issues, like not having spare parts for your various production tools. You can no longer wait two or three weeks for the tool room to make you a new spare part. In fact, you have to create a new approach where the tools are always ready when needed, no excuses. Or what if your new daily delivery box supplier has set up problems and can’t deliver till the next day? He could shut you down for half a day or more.
In non-manufacturing companies problems also pop up, although they may be slightly different in nature. I once helped a life insurance company address the problem that it was taking them 48 days to respond to a quote. They were divided into two departments: the underwriters and the case managers who worked with the underwriters. The underwriters were underwriting about 15 lives per week but the kaizen showed they were capable of doing more than 100 per week. We set up a cell with one underwriter and four case managers sitting together working as a team. At first, we isolated them physically as they considered it an experiment. It made great progress but when they finally brought this change back in the main underwriting area the managers separated the team on the basis that it was “unprofessional” for the underwriters to have to sit with the case managers, and so the whole thing collapsed. We reconstituted the cell in the underwriting area and got back on track. When I insisted that they post an hour-by-hour visual control board in their cell so that they and everyone else could see their progress they were horrified. “Definitely not professional.” We made it stick and this cell was soon responding to half the quotes in less than 20 days and the underwriters were doing 88 lives per week instead of 15. But boy, there were a lot of problems along the way.
The same was true in various hospital kaizens that I ran. In one emergency room kaizen, the head of the blood lab refused to make any changes to her department despite the fact that the kaizen pointed out a number of sensible improvements. In the same kaizen the head of the emergency room and the head of the diagnostic imaging lab got in a shouting match out in the hall one morning over changes that were needed in the diagnostic lab to improve the flow in the ER. Or the unfortunate case during a kaizen in the hospital laundry, where the supervisor of the department sorting the dirty laundry before sending it to the washing machines got so upset over the changes that we proposed that he punch his manager in the face and put him in the hospital for a couple of days. This of course is an extreme example that you shouldn’t have to worry about; but anything is possible.
Some of these examples point out why most companies are not successful in converting to lean. When issues pop up, and people are challenged or even made uncomfortable, management gets concerned and backs off—or worse, simply retreats to their traditional approach. It takes leadership and determination to push through all the problems you will encounter. The kaizen results will show you what is possible and tell you why you want to keep pushing forward. Getting the kaizen results to stick, however, is a whole other matter. You need management commitment if you are to be successful. The good news is that the rewards for a successful lean conversion are very significant for all involved, your customers, your employees, your shareholders and your community. So, don’t be afraid; take the lean leap, and when you encounter problems, fix them one-by-one and keep leaping.