Improvement, by definition, requires change, and it is often intimidating to know where to start. Lean manufacturing provides a framework to identify improvements and systematically achieve them. Over the last 20 years of my career, in multiple industries, I have found the principles of Lean manufacturing to be critical to my success.
Conversations about Lean manufacturing (also called "Lean Sig Sigma" or just "Lean") can be full of jargon and confusing foreign terms. But, at its core, Lean is simply about continuously removing the wasteful activities in daily routine and improving upon the quality of results. While these principles have taken hold in manufacturing circles, every business can benefit from them.
Take a few moments to think about your last week of work. Has it been filled with non-stop valuable experiences? Were the results at the level of quality you wanted? Chances are, if you are like most people, a significant percentage of your day was spend doing things that slowed you down or prevented you from delivering the quality of results you desired.
But we can’t just find more hours in the day. In order to achieve better results, we must spend less time doing things that don’t add value to our goals. This is easy to say, but hard to do. Here are three critical Lean skills (in the order that I learned them) that have helped me in every workplace I have been a part of:
1. Learn how to identify wasteful activities
It can be harder than you think to identify waste. We can all fall prey to accepting the status quo. To help with this, Lean categorizes waste and makes it easier to spot. Currently, there are eight main forms of waste identified by Lean. These can be remembered by using the mnemonic DOWNTIME. Take a look at the below, and then think about your day. Do any of these apply? (Spoiler alert: They will.)
Defects: Products or services that are out of specification that require resources to correct.
Overproduction: Producing too much of a product before it is ready to be sold.
Waiting: Waiting for the previous step in the process to complete.
Non-Utilized Talent: Employees that are not effectively engaged in the process
Transportation: Transporting items or information that is not required to perform the process from one location to another.
Inventory: Inventory or information that is sitting idle (not being processed).
Motion: People, information or equipment making unnecessary motion due to workspace layout, ergonomic issues or searching for misplaced items.
Extra Processing: Performing any activity that is not necessary to produce a functioning product or service.
Learning how to “see” this waste is the first major step in your Lean journey. It was difficult at first for me to think this way, but now it is almost instinctual. WARNING: Once you learn how to see waste, you will never be able to “unsee” it, so be prepared to have a life changing experience.
2. Truly understand the processes and challenges
Once your eyes have been opened to the waste around you, it can be tempting to just start changing things to make them “better.” I learned the hard way (through a number of failures) that I had to first seek to understand my current state before making attempts at improving it. Would you want somebody changing around your workday without understanding what you do? Neither did my co-workers.
To truly distinguish yourself as a top-notch Lean champion, take the time to deeply learn a process. People around you will notice the difference, feel appreciated and be more prone to partner in your proposed changes. Some great tools for this are:
- Process maps: Defines the steps of the process and who owns them
- Strap yourself to the part: This is one of my favorites. Pick an item (like a manufactured component) and follow it through its entire life-cycle. You will be amazed at what you discover
- Cause-and-effect diagrams: A great way to collect information on a challenge and link it to a number of possible sources
Once I had found waste, and understood my process, it was time to inform others and start collaborating around change. My experience has been that few people naturally let data drive their decision making. We usually want to go after whatever is currently causing the most angst.
It was critical that I learned how to collect important data (raw numbers or facts) and turn it into information (insights that can guide effective decision making). There are countless ways to collect and display data, but the following are methods that ALWAYS seem to land with every audience:
- Data collection – checksheets: This tried-and-true method is a simple way, for even the least technically inclined person, to collect information about a process. They can be provided via hard copy, or soft copy, depending on what works best for your environment.
- Data display – histogram: No matter the audience, we all understand that we need to go after the “big bars.” Histograms help us set clear priorities and create the largest return for an investment.
Robert Campbell is senior SEO/content manager, electrical solutions and support at Wake Industrial. He has been working in the industrial automation space for over 10 years.