How many times have we heard someone say something like “I understand that lean works for you, but you have to understand we’re different”?
And they are right. They are different. If everyone were the same, someone would have already published “The Lean Cookbook.” I have a recipe for pasta sauce that has been passed down through the generations in my family. I know that if I follow the recipe, I will always have a great pasta sauce. But because everyone is “different” there is no cookbook.
That said, the differences are not an excuse for not becoming lean. Contrary to what many “lean consultants” preach these days, lean is not an operational tactic. Lean is a strategy. It’s a customer-focused strategy that uses time as a weapon to provide “things” (delivery, quality, new products, etc.) faster and better than the competition. In implementing this strategy, you quickly realize that the principles are universal, but the application of them is local…because we are all different and need to adapt those principles to our current situation.
The key challenge is learning how to adapt the fundamental approaches of lean to your specific situation. To do this it’s helpful to identify and follow four basic principles that support this time-based element of lean strategy: flow, pull, takt time and standardized work.
Flow: If you look at our processes you will discover that up to 90 percent of the elapsed time (i.e. first step to last) is consumed by the output of that process either waiting to be worked on or moving from one place to another…to wait to be worked on. You want to physically change your processes so that work moves from one operation to the next in a continuous flow, ideally without interruption. A financial services company reduced the amount of time for approving new agents by 46 percent by reducing the amount of moving and waiting in a paperbound process. It was able to attribute $3.1 million of new revenue in the first years to this improvement. In his book Follow the Learner: The Lean Dentist, Dr. Sami Bahri, DDS talks about “one-patient flow” and says, “Real improvement at the Bahri Dental Group only happened when we began directing our efforts towards this goal.”
Pull: Producing to a forecast is “push” production. Producing to an actual customer demand is “pull” production. One of the tools to facilitate “pull” is a kanban card system. In his book The Lean Turnaround, Art Byrne discusses how St. Frances Hospital, in Hartford, Connecticut, implemented a kanban pull system for its in-house laundry, and improved the on-time delivery of linens to the patient floors while eliminating the need for $600,000 of excess linen inventory.
Takt Time: This is the rate at which customers demand our products or services. It is the rate at which we have to complete one unit. If there are 450 minutes in a workday and customers are buying, on average, 450 units per day, we have to complete one unit every minute. Lean author Michael Balle discusses the use of takt time in his own work: “The full sense of the takt time concept appears when one is trying to deliver a number of different products over the same production resources. For instance, as a writer, I write books, articles, this column, blog posts, and tweets. Since I’m the one doing the writing, I need to have some idea of when to do what. Takt time helps me to see myself through the work: a book every two to three years, an article every three months, a column every week, a blog post every couple of days and so on.” Certainly this use of takt time is not as rigid as needing to complete one unit every minute, as cited above, but is a good example of adapting the universal principle to local conditions.
Standardized Work: If you do something differently each time you do it, how do you identify what is truly value-adding work and what is not? It’s only by following standardized work every time that you create the environment for continuous improvement. I can’t think of anything that is done that is not done in the context of some process. And that applies to our business life (manufacturing or service) or personal life. It’s only by creating standardization within those processes that you can begin to identify waste (activities that don’t add value) and change the process for the better.
I have seen dramatic improvement in productivity and lead time when these principles have been applied in different environments: repetitive manufacturing, job shop manufacturing, insurance company underwriting group, hospitals, accounts payable, bank mortgage groups, a supermarket, a dentist office, farming, airplane assembly, warehousing, restaurants, construction, financial services and a food bank (see video below).
Are all of these enterprises different? Yes. However, they have been able to see through those differences in order to think about how the universal principles can be applied to what they do and then put that unique thinking into practice by conducting experiments to learn what works for them. Two notable examples are in healthcare…which would appear to be as far from manufacturing as possible. When Virginia Mason Health Systems was seeking to learn about lean, its CEO, Dr. Gary Kaplan, brought his entire management team from Seattle to Wiremold in Connecticut to see what we were doing. Likewise, Dr. John Toussaint, CEO of Thedacare in Wisconsin, visited the Ariens Company, a manufacturer of lawn mowers and snow blowers, to see what they were doing. They did not come to Wiremold and Ariens to learn how to build an electrical product, a lawnmower or a snowblower. They were there to understand the basic principles at work and discuss how those principles applied to healthcare.
If you are trying to figure out how to get started, think of it this way:
- Pick a process and standardize it. Until you do that you don’t really know what’s happening.
- Understand the demand placed on the process, the takt time. You need to know that so that when you change the process you can change it in a way that can satisfy the demand.
- Create flow within the process by identifying moving and waiting times. Then commit to making the physical changes needed to eliminate them.
- Establish a link between the process and the customer so that the people in the process can see what the customer wants and when it is wanted. A basic kanban system can satisfy this need. (Note: basic does not equate to “simple”)
So, if you are still using the “yes, but we are different” excuse to avoid the hard work of becoming lean…stop it. You’re wasting time.
P.S. If you have examples of these basic four lean principles implemented in “different” environments, please keep this discussion going by describing them in the comments section of this posting.