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.