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Where Should We Start Our Lean Effort?

Where should we start our Lean effort?

There are two basic ways to approach this question. The first is functional, as in which department is the best location to start with. The other is hierarchical, meaning the level within the organization.

The short answer is that the best approach I have seen is one of opportunity.

For the area to start in, let me begin by saying I am an advocate of starting out by piloting Lean structures in one work area first. The problem with a more widespread approach is that you will end up developing several different processes for the same thing. Consider if three different work areas all develop their own kanban cards. That can make things very difficult for the materials group, or for people who transfer between different departments. Likewise, you don’t want each manager developing his or her own Lean training program. A pilot area lets you refine processes and work out the bugs before rolling them out to the entire organization.

As far as opportunity, your best chance of success tends to lie with the commitment of the leader.  If there is a boss who is committed to Lean, it will be far easier to make continuous improvement efforts stick in his or her area. A close second to that is the collective personality of the team. Some groups are far more responsive to change than others.

As far as level of the organization where you should start, the preferred way is to get buy-in at the senior executive level. If they commit to a leadership structure that includes things like policy deployment, operations reviews, daily management, and KPI’s, the rest of the organization will follow. Unfortunately, not all senior executives are ready to dive into Lean. In those situations where top-level support doesn’t exist, Lean becomes a target of opportunity.

For example, if a new manager with continuous improvement experience joins the organization, she can make changes within her control. She can post a production board on the wall and begin doing daily management. She can commit to using countermeasures to resolve problems. She can focus on 5S and visual controls. She can track her own set of KPI is to make your team get better. In these cases, there tends to be a fairly rapid and dramatic rise in performance. Even if senior executives are not initially committed to Lean, it is hard to ignore success.

It’s much tougher to do this at levels below manager. Managers have a great deal of autonomy in their organization. Frontline employees have much less. While it is tougher to make changes, however, it is not impossible. Of note, the flexibility to alter processes is often greater in the office than it is on the shop floor. In either case, though, a front-line employee can focus on 5S and using strong problem solving skills to resolve issues. Standardizing and documenting a process can also improve an operation which often leads to the manager sniffing around trying to see what happened. It is far easier to convince those in charge for the benefit of Lean when you have a specific example of success to point to. Abstract concepts are much harder to sell.


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