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Lessons from the Road: Reducing Lead Time Changes Everything

Dec. 17, 2012
Proven strategies for being first without working faster

Ever hear "get it done faster"? It comes from many sources, most importantly, customers. The most time-tested -- and ineffective -- means to actually get faster is to work faster.

Why is getting it done faster so important? It's not what most people think, so they can get more done. That confuses lead time with activity, or what I call calendar time and clock time. Calendar time is how long it takes between the request and the completion. Clock time is how much work went into getting it done. This column, for example, takes the same amount of time on my clock whether I get it done in a day or a week of calendar time. If I wrote faster, I might slightly improve my clock time, while likely doing nearly nothing for my calendar time, or lead time.

Reducing lead time isn't about capacity. The amount of work that can get done is usually still the amount of work that can get done. What lead time does is deliver the request sooner to whomever needs something done. Why that matters depends on the request, but here is a fact that might startle you, as an example. Studies have shown that the first quote, product sample or proposal received is drastically more likely to get chosen, in some cases 80% of the time. It wasn't cost, or quality or value; it was being first.

How do you reduce lead time? It's not by working faster. Here are key strategies:

  1. Work in parallel. If work is done in parallel instead of in series, there isn't less work, but it is completed sooner. When my wife asks me to pour the kids some milk while she's putting food on the plate, it gets dinner on the table sooner. Most efforts of set-up reduction are solved in this way: taking steps done in series after the machine stops and moving them to being done in parallel to the machine running.
  2. Eliminate loops. Working faster often fails because it inadvertently increases errors. Rework is the most common form of loops. There is an exception, and that is when the loops primarily are designed for learning. If knowledge is the end result of the process, loops aren't rework. They are each a value-added step toward the objective.
  3. Eliminate handoffs. Every handoff is an opportunity for a delay or an error. Work stops and must be transferred before it begins again. Worse, the next resource is not immediately ready to begin so the work waits in queue. The most substantive improvements are often from eliminating handoffs. Removing people from the process eliminates handoffs. Many retail services that require approvals give employees the tools needed to do approvals themselves, so customers get answers faster.
  4. Eliminate steps altogether. Cutting out steps not only reduces lead time by the time needed for those steps, but also likely eliminates two handoffs. To improve hiring lead time, instead of finance verifying the budget availability, they design tools so managers can do it themselves. This eliminates the step for finance, saving 15 minutes, but the handoff to finance and back eliminates over a week of lead time.
  5. Compress the work. Getting the work done in less time, not by working faster, is often the hardest. After spell-check was invented, it took less time to check the spelling in this column. Technology is often a solution here, whether it is buying faster equipment in manufacturing or developing software tools for the office. Capacity frequently is increased, although that was not the driving objective.
  6. Increase capacity. Capacity can increase many ways, including by compressing the work. You can also add more resources. This impacts lead time because after a handoff, the resource is busy with the last task, creating a queue. Increasing capacity reduces the queue time.

Lead-time reduction is a game changer for most processes. Delivering faster is a true competitive advantage. The pursuit of lead-time reduction also forces you to eliminate other wastes. If I had to pick a single metric to focus an improvement effort, I would choose lead time.

Contributing Editor Jamie Flinchbaugh is a co-founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich., and the co-author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road."

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