What Is Lean?

in Small-business
The myth of Lean
There is a lot of talk in Industry about Lean and this panacea that can change the world we work in. There is also a lot of discussion in organisations about Lean and how 'we tried that'. Lean isn't an overnight sensation - it's an over-years sensation. It is also common to hear people say 'we're going Lean' and 'we now have Lean systems in place' when actually the systems aren't in place. In short, there is a lot of misunderstanding about a relatively simple concept. Whilst correcting this misunderstanding can be simple, putting Lean in place is the real challenge.

A simple balance
Lean at its heart is a balance between the waste generated by your organisation and the value that it creates for your customers. Now, as stated above, this is a simple concept. Lean is a philosophy - a way of looking at the world. Changing the way you look at your world can significantly change the way in which you approach developing your business.

Know your wastes
What is waste? Simply put it is anything that your customer doesn't want to pay you for. There are two types of waste, essential and non-essential. Essential wastes are activities that have to be done but don't necessarily give the customer what they want. For example, you make widgets and have a widget-making machine. Running that machine to fulfil a customer order is something that the customer will pay for. The Accounts department doesn't make widgets and the customer is probably not too bothered about it. However you need an Accounts function to have a business - this is an example of an essential waste. On the other side of the waste spectrum we have non-essential waste, wastes that neither you or your customer should or need to pay for. An example of this is the transport of the widgets around your business because the locations of different operations are not next to each other. There is also a useful classification known as the 7 wastes - see the article '7 Wastes: Defined', this will help you to 'see' more wastes in your organisation.

What is value?
Now we have a good idea of what we have in the business that we don't want, we need to ask what does our customer actually want? This is essential to understand if we are to delight our customers. Do they want a quick turnaround of technical information? Do they want the flexibility to change colours at the last moment? Do they want different delivery batch sizes? Do they want to call off stock as and when they use stock at their end? Quality and on-time deliveries are a given, these are entry-level requirements to be supplying in the first place. Understanding your customers and giving them the service they want is where you need to be in order to start developing your Lean strategy.

Other considerations
Lean typically frees up people from the processes that are being reviewed, be them shop floor or office based. In the past organisations have used this as an opportunity to cut the labour costs and reduce the organisational head count. There isn't a more sure-fire way to stop the flow of ideas from around the workplace. Lean is about people and like any business, you need the involvement from everyone to make changes happen and to keep the benefits. When people are freed up as a result of improvements in the business they need to re-deployed as per your organisation's Lean Policy. Are they going to form an improvement team to accelerate the business' development, or will they be consumed back into the working area as volume increases through larger market share derived from being more competitive? This needs to be thought about prior to embarking on the Lean journey.

There are many simple tools and techniques to help you achieve your Lean goals, each one chipping away at a different waste (such as quick tool changeover or visual management). Put them all together in a controlled way and you have a powerful arsenal to assist your business in becoming Lean. These tools are explained in many of the main-stream texts on Lean.

Recommended Reading
There are many excellent texts on Lean and the implementation process. Two that Smartspeed recommend are 'Lean Thinking' by Womack and Jones and 'The New Lean Toolbox' by John Bicheno. Both are worth reading if the goals of reduced lead-time, reduced product costs and a better working environment (all benefits of Lean) are something that are important to your organisation.
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Giles Johnston has 1 articles online

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This article was published on 2011/03/29