Jamie Flinchbaugh on Sustaining the Gains of Lean

April 24, 2008
It's not just about choosing the right lean tools.

For many companies engaged in transforming their environment through lean, the problem is that gains made with the use of lean tools don't stick. Indeed, Jamie Flinchbaugh says he has never observed a company move forward in their continuous improvement efforts without some steps backward. Flinchbaugh, founder and partner in the Lean Learning Center, offered this observation at the recent IW Best Plants conference held in Milwaukee.

He outlined as an example the lasting effects of kaizen efforts at a company for which he once worked. According to Flinchbaugh, upon measuring the results of those kaizens, he discovered the half life was about five months. By that, he meant that in five months, the company had lost half the gains of the kaizen effort.

The challenge of making and sustaining gains is not about choosing the correct lean tools, Flinchbaugh says. It's about creating a culture in which everyone understands the principles of lean and engages in behaviors that reflect that understanding.

At the conference, Flinchbaugh posed several questions and shared ideas to help companies maintain their lean gains. His observations included:

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    "What is the purpose of 5S?" he asked the IW Best Plants conference audience. Among the responses Flinchbaugh heard were: housekeeping, organization and less clutter. Those are benefits of 5S, to be sure, he said, but the purpose is to spot problems quickly. Don't expect to maintain gains of a 5S program if everyone doesn't understand the purpose of the program.
  • One measure of how well you've internalized lean principles is how much your job changes every day, Flinchbaugh says. "If you truly internalize lean principles, you can't help but continue to improve," he said. That means the job changes every day.
  • Work on what's important, Flinchbaugh said. Many organizations begin a lean effort with 5S, and the reasons are sound: It's very visual and it gets everyone involved. However, for many companies Flinchbaugh says 5S isn't the best place to start if it doesn't solve a problem the company has.
  • Make the work visible so problems become visible. He cited inventory as an example. Inventory covers problems in the process, he says. Reducing inventory illustrates the fragility of the process, makes problems more visible, and provides the opportunity to solve those problems before they become bigger problems.

He ended the presentation with the reminder: "Every big problem you face today was once a small problem."

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For more information on the IW Best Plants Conference, including information regarding the 2009 Conference and the ability to subscribe the IW Best Plants Conference Connection Digital Magazine and receive regular conference news, highlighting exactly what you will see, hear and learn at individual sessions, keynotes and plant tours, please see the IW Best Plants Conference Web site.

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