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The Lean Starting Line

Sept. 29, 2014
Want to get started with lean? Your first job is to answer the question "Why?"

While it might seem that everyone is doing lean these days, there are many organizations that are still looking to get started. And within the companies doing lean, there are many groups that are looking to get started. But how?

The typical playbook on lean -- some training and 5S -- isn't very inspired, and it's both easy to sign up for and easy to ignore. This is one reason so many efforts stall. I meet too many organizations that did some "lean stuff" but there is really no evidence of it. The traditional playbook fails too often. There are a few more serious steps worth examining before you get too far.

1. Answer the why. Let's face it: One of the reasons you are interested in lean is that so many other people are doing lean, and you're afraid you must be missing something. It's not quite cult behavior, but it does have some similarities. This is a horrible reason, albeit a common one.

Some of the rational but generic answers aren't much better, such as "be more competitive." That was true 10 years ago and will be true 10 years from now, so why does it compel us to try using a different means of managing such as lean? It doesn't compel us at all. We had to be more competitive 10 years ago and we're still here; therefore, we don't need lean.              

You must be clear about your purpose. Why do you need lean? What challenge do you face that you don't know how to solve? What demands that you do something different? Maybe it's a new competitive entrant that is going to require you to cut your lead times in half. Maybe it's new customer demands that require new service delivery. Maybe it's a massively complex merger that requires examination of every process. And maybe you're just burned out from getting results through brute force. But your reason for lean should be specific, and it should strike an emotional chord with yourself and those you expect to lead.

2. Know your history. You are not yet committed to lean. You are just set up to become committed. This is where knowing yourself and knowing your organization is so important. What in your past has gotten you to the point of true commitment?

It is often different for every organization. With one client, they were extremely customer-focused. While to some it will sound like pandering, when their customer said that lean was important to them, the company didn't hesitate to commit to lean themselves. Their lean efforts, in turn, were focused on issues that the customer found important, such as delivery consistency and quality.

In my work across a broad range of semiconductor companies, as many of them were exploring lean, the most common question I received was, "Who else in semiconductors is doing lean?" No one wanted to be first, and no one wanted to be last. Trying to predict where this fast-changing industry was going was key to engagement.

Each organization must find its own trigger that will lead it to commit to the lean journey, because a journey without commitment will just cost you money.

3. "Quick wins" doesn't mean the easy stuff. It is beneficial to focus on quick wins for three reasons. First, the money or time you gain in savings can be reinvested in continuous improvement. Second, it keeps people interested and engaged. And third, it starts generating learning cycles to build capability and culture.

But quick wins is often confused with doing easy stuff. Organizations do 5S because they think it's easy. It's not easy to do right. I saw one organization put kanban into place in the office supply closet and call it a success. Work on something meaningful, even hard, because that's where the benefits are found. And that's where the learning is generated.

Just doing lean is not worth it. But doing lean in a meaningful way is worth every ounce of effort.

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

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