How to ensure the success of lean before you begin

Monday May 05, 2014
Written by Shawn Casemore
A client recently asked me whether I thought the integration of lean was a worthwhile investment of time and capital. “That all depends on your objectives,” was my response.

Lean can be a valuable tool to help improve business performance while maximizing employee engagement in the process, but it’s more of a journey than a destination. If a rapid-fire approach to elevating business performance is desired, lean may not be the right tool for the job.

There are five predominant signs that lean is the right tool for the job, in no particular order:
1. Processes are deemed as complex and complicated, yielding less than satisfactory performance.
2. Employees are generally disengaged and uninterested in the success of the business.
3. Front-line leaders are overwhelmed in prescribing and managing task-based assignments.
4. The status of jobs, tasks and projects are generally invisible to those outside the working area.
5. Departments are focused on increasing productivity with little regard for the impact this has on other work groups.

Despite the value of integrating a lean program, there are some who disbelieve or distrust a lean approach because of the time investment required to build lasting and sustained results; and the initial impact lean can have on employees who often experience significant ebbs and flows in workload volume during the process. Fortunately, however, there are several critical components that, if addressed prior to introducing lean, can improve both the velocity and sustainability of the results achieved.

If you are thinking of introducing and integrating lean into your organization, here are the three most critical components you should consider before launching your initiative.

1. What are your objectives?
What do you want to achieve by introducing lean? You can’t hammer a nail with a screwdriver, nor can you fix a technology problem with a Kaizen event. Lean is a tool, and being clear on your desired outcomes from the very start will ensure that you select the right tool at the right time. Clarity of objectives will shed light on how to best introduce lean. Launching several strategically staggered Kaizen events, for example, is a great way to engage employees early on and establish quick wins to improve processes. This approach will yield very different results than beginning with a simple 5S program. Assessing the right approach to integrating lean begins with understanding your objectives.

2. Are your employees prepared to engage?
Its one thing to ask employees what they think should be done to improve performance in a specific area of the business. It’s a completely different approach to engage in a dialogue with employees to understand the challenges and opportunities, and to discuss options and ideas on how to improve. Most employee suggestion programs fail because of one-way communication — employees make recommendations, then management decides which to pursue or implement. Lean is about engagement, and requires that employees have a seat at the table; that they be heard and responded to in an open and meaningful dialogue.

3. How will each employee embrace lean?
As lean starts by engaging employees, I often find that truly engaging senior leadership is one of the single greatest challenges in the full integration of lean. It’s critical to consider how to engage all levels of the organization — from senior leaders, to board members, to employees — before beginning your lean journey. Each group has different perspectives, objectives and priorities, so forming an integration plan that meets the needs of each group while building excitement and commitment is critical to ensuring the sustainability of a lean program.

If you have been wondering whether lean is the right approach for your business, consider the three critical reasons for the introduction of lean described above, and then spend time thinking about your strategy, ability to engage, and how to fully integrate across the business. By applying this approach, you are guaranteed to select the right tool for the job at the right time, and that is the essence of lean.

Shawn Casemore (@ShawnCasemore) is the president and founder of Casemore and Co Incorporated, a management consultancy that helps organizations realize operational excellence through a focus on improvements in the areas of business strategy, process design and execution, supply chain management and cultural evolution. 

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