How to Be Lean

By Jon Miller Updated on March 30th, 2015

CompetitionBy Jon Miller

Most people who come to Gemba Academy are looking for answers to three basic types of questions.

The first is the technical question, relating to the practical details, formulas, calculations, shortcuts, dos and don’ts of specific lean tools, methods and systems such  as value stream mapping or kanban.

We love these questions and have endeavored to provided the best and most detailed answers we can, but have much more work to do in that regard.

The second and increasingly more common type of question is “what is lean?” This question comes from people are just discovering lean, or in many cases have had lean placed in front of them with a directive to ‘make it so’ in their organization.

Although our 700+ videos may be a bit intimidating at first, people soon find that their understanding and confidence builds, module by module, 10-15 minute viewing at a time.

A third type that is emerging is “how to be lean?” which deals more with culture, sustaining and elevating performance, and making lean a better and closer fit to one’s own company environment.

Our customers have told us that the growing GembaLive! series has really helped in this area by allowing them to see and hear how people just like themselves are making it a part of real, every day life.

This third type of question still seems to lack a great answer. Perhaps, that’s OK given that the answer to “how to be lean” must be highly individual and situational. In addition, if we agree that lean is an ever-changing state of being, as in the pursuit of unattainable perfection, we can never pin it down quite like “what is lean?” or “how do I put standardized work in place?”

But I would like to take a stab at answering this question of “how to be lean” by offering three broad actions.

1. Recognize that outputs are subordinate to inputs.

This means in practical terms, pulling instead of pushing in a production-type  environment, using the build-measure-learn cycle to develop new products with frequent and early customer input, selecting and training people to be successful withing the lean operating system, putting good process of good results as we would the cart, the carriage and the carriage fee.

Even the very first step of defining the desired outputs, whether “let’s be lean” or “let’s make this much money” is subordinate to understanding the inputs, i.e. what exactly we are willing to do individually or as a group to achieve them. The ambitious goals of the most successful people have been subordinate to the small, daily inputs over many people-days.

2. Expose problems rather than buffer them.

This has resulted in a strong bias for small or single-batch flow over batch or lot-based work. It requires organizing the workplace visually, setting and maintaining 5S workplace organization at a high level, and becoming visually intimate with documented standards.

All of this requires creating fearless relationships between customers and suppliers as well as team members and team leaders, installing visual and audio means for alerting people quickly to abnormalities, and designing teams in ways that allow quick and effective corrective action to close gaps.

There will always be problems, reasons why the outputs aren’t hitting target – but let’s remember that we only have control over the inputs including the process itself, and this is the domain or problem solving.

3. Build problem solving capability to make buffers less and less necessary.

Buffers are a necessary input to guard against problems which haven’t yet been addressed through root cause countermeasures, cannot be addressed be due to dangerous unknowns in the business, or cannot be addressed due to the known but unpredictable timing and/or severity of the problem occurrence.

These buffers are necessary evils and these become the visible targets for continuous improvement and problem solving. Resisting the temptation to move on to new and more exciting projects and problems, management attention must remain on going deeper into these problems to constantly lower buffer levels by giving people the space, time, trust and development opportunities to focus on these problems.

There are many excellent tools and methods, and many resources for learning them. There’s no excuse for continuing to struggle to put these into practice. But these are just inputs, and if the question is “how to be lean?” then it is important to first consider the output, or desired condition, before re-selecting the necessary inputs.

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