Where should I start with Lean? is a common question we receive at Gemba Academy.  Some say starting with 5S is a must.  Others favor eliminating the seven deadly wastes. Others still suggest value stream mapping.  A great question is “What problem are your trying to solve?”

The need for a transition to lean thinking and acting is often related to standards not being met and performance expectations not being realized.  The need to adhere to standards, in my view, is often a good place to start.

A manufacturing company I know very well struggled for years with one particular production department.  The company consistently delivered high quality products to the customer.  At the same time the atmosphere within this department was often difficult to endure.  Low morale, scrap, rework, secondary inspection, and overtime were common problems.

The department supervisor pursued another opportunity outside the organization creating an opportunity for new leadership.  A supervisor from a smaller department was moved into the vacated position in the larger, troubled department.

Her approach with the workforce was direct.  She was unwavering in her adherence to standards and had very high expectations of her team members.  She wasn’t one to lecture the team on the rules.  Instead, she demonstrated her requirements of the team without fail.

Every production run included several forms to be hand-written by the operators.  These forms were submitted to the supervisor at the end of the run.  The supervisor rejected every form containing even the slightest error.  For example, company SOP stated every box on a form was to be populated, even if there was no information to record there.  A simple “N/A” or strikethrough would be sufficient.  Forms were regularly submitted with empty boxes.  The supervisor simply explained the work was below standards, redlined the document, and returned it to the operator to rewrite before leaving for the day.

The operators quickly learned to pay attention to detail and complete their work according to standards.  With no other changes to the day-to-day activities than maintaining the standards that were already in place, the performance of the department improved dramatically.

Once the standards were being met, many problems started to go away.  The first noticeable difference was that morale had improved.  Scrap and rework started to improve as well.  While some thought the team wouldn’t respond well to the supervisor’s absolute intolerance of not following the rules, the result was that people liked it.  They were able to trust the right things were being done the right way.

Once the preexisting standards were being met, continuous improvement could begin.

Applying lean tools to a dysfunctional organization is a wasted effort.  As Ohno said, “Where there are no standards there can be no kaizen.”

When we get excited about the idea of beginning a lean journey it’s easy to want to start using lean tools right away.  The problem with that is that “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  We attempt to improve where there is no standard.  Sometimes the best thing to do is to put the tools in the toolbox and spend as much time and effort as necessary to prepare the worksite.

Seek perfection in following the rules, procedures, and standards that are already in place.  Develop lean behaviors before worrying about putting lean tools to use.  When there is a culture of consistently meeting all standards, then the the team is prepared to begin improvement.

  1. Lynn Loynes

    April 30, 2018 - 12:33 pm

    Agree with the concept of setting and refining your team’s baseline standards as a starting point. Would suggest balancing that thinking with the caution to consider the purpose of/what is a standard – the best known way to do the work; as well as something the team develops to share the common method. Have seen aggressive pusing of standard used to reinforce hero culture, or “my way or the highway” behavior, under the lean banner. Keeping it linked to respect for the individual, it can be a good place to start.

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