Lean Management Overview

Lean Management Overview
Douglas Wood

What is Lean and why would you do it?

First of all, Lean is not an acronym for 'Less Employees Are Needed.' To do Lean in this way is the fastest way to do the proverbial 'crash and burn.' Some firms have had large layoffs and implemented Lean, but the Lean implementation followed the layoffs, and was not the cause of the layoffs. These firms were in deep trouble, and their Lean journey was the way to growth in employment, not more layoffs.

Lean is a means of making things a few at a time, without large batches. Getting this done means many things. It means less waste, faster change over’s, a reliable system of materials and labor flow, standard work and team flexibility, production leveling, a more orderly workplace, flexible and reliable equipment, better customer and supplier relationships, engaged and creative employees secure in their work, managers skilled in coaching and guiding others, and so on. This describes both what Lean is and why you would want to be Lean.

To get to this ideal world from where we are now is a mighty leap, and will take many changes in our practices. Industry will get there, of that there is no doubt. Lean traces its roots back to the early 20th century, and the progress of the most successful industrial enterprises have followed a clear path. From Peter Drucker’s Concept of the Corporation in 1946, to Alfred Sloan’s My Years with General Motors in 1965, to James Womack’s The Machine that Changed the World in 1990, there is a clear arc of growth in process quality. Lean is but the latest step, and not a revolution, but spiraling back to the roots of what industry has been about all along. To keep to the path requires a seasoned and consistent vision by leaders.

To cover Lean well, there are many subjects to learn. Even if your organization decides that some of the possible Lean subjects are outside the designated scope, there is likely to be a great deal of training needed. In addition, any training needs to b e delivered just before it is used, so that participants can use their new knowledge right away.

Good adult training uses exercises to help internalize the material. Lecture learning is limiting. Whether your training is delivered locally or via live internet courses, each course should provide a chance for participants to practice what they are learning. Recorded or self-study courses are often limited in who they reach because many need live interaction to master new subjects, and a chance to ask questions is invaluable.

Here is a list of broad subject areas found in Lean:

These subject areas do not stand alone. Each interweaves with the others, and implementation will need to consider that interrelatedness. For example, The Five S approach is needed before work standardization is started, and both will require a strong dose of employee involvement and team management to succeed. Value stream mapping relies on work standardization, and Total Productive Maintenance is a needed precursor to Just –in-time.

Planning is usually one of the starting subjects. Lean planning comprises some aspects not always used in practice. For example, the Lean planning process is a continuous wheel, with modifications moving upstream from the production area (constraints, resource needs, issues raised by new findings, etc.) and new plans moving back downstream. Once-a-year planning is not useful here, as Lean makes substantial changes on a regular basis, and substantial changes will require new plans.

Going along with this body of knowledge, breaking Lean into interrelated courses is a good idea, so that participants can more smoothly form one subject to another. Having an overview for managers is also useful, so that they can understand what is required in their oversight of the Lean implementation. The key idea here is that the Lean subjects are closely tied together. If you try to do Lean and leave out any of the key parts, you will fail to gain full benefits. Indeed, you may fail to gain any benefits, and your cost, quality, and/or service may actually become worse that before.

Who gets involved?

Lest we think Lean is only an operations issue, let us look at how Lean helps individuals at different levels and from different support areas.

General Managers are often troubled with the need to reduce cost and increase capacity, increase capability and agility, improve customer satisfaction, increase team motivation, improve product/service quality permanently, and reduce costly supplier issues. Lean helps with all of these. Some changes are indirect, such as team motivation. Most employees find engagement programs lacking if they feel the work is not going to make a difference. Lean is likely to require more work, but if employees can make a real difference, they are usually motivated enough to do the added effort.

Functional managers have a slightly different series of challenges. They need to make tactical improvements, eliminate bottlenecks in production, decrease work cycle time, reduce rework, scrap, and service issues, reduce the loss of good employees, and to smooth the workflow. Again, Lean done right will help with all these issues.

Quality Managers may see Lean as a challenge to their area. After all, individuals outside the quality area often use quality toolsets during Lean implementation. Also, Lean makes massive defects (and the need for sampling plans) less likely, since a key element of Lean is having employees check their own work. The quality department needs to be the center of excellence of the various Lean tools and approaches, so that their influence may actually expand with Lean implementation.

Lean affects many support areas. For example, HR needs to understand the skill needs and conflicts that may arise from Lean implementation, so they can prepare for it. There is often dislocation when one area reduces its labor and other areas need added labor to handle rising or changing demand.

In Conclusion

Your Lean journey will be a custom one for you, but do not neglect to take into account the interrelatedness of Lean. Doing Lean a little bit a time will make it much harder to implement, and will take away personal engagement that your people will see as they make a real difference.