Developing a Lean Process Improvement Strategy

Lean process improvement is a company-wide initiative to achieve operational excellence. It is an approach that facilitates improvement of process efficiency and quality while delivering faster service and cost reduction. Lean implementation is no longer confined to manufacturing. It can be successfully applied to service and administrative processes. Manufacturing and service companies should consider the positive impact Lean will have on all organizational processes when developing their Lean process improvement strategy.

There are five basic steps to developing a Lean process improvement strategy:

  1. Assess the Current State
  2. Determine the Future State Workflow
  3. Identify Future State Organizational Structure
  4. Identify priorities
  5. Develop the Plans

Assess the Current State

Map the current state value stream/process and collect actual process data. While you are gathering data, take notes on information and material flow. Review your data to make sure all necessary data has been collected.

Determine the Future State Workflow

Workflow is dependent on product and process layout. For most organizations workflow is the best place to start. Many other things become easier with a streamlined workflow.

At first, you will know the final layout and arrangement of the factory or office. However, you should be able to determine where work cells will probably apply and where they may not. You may be able to identify where a few pieces of new equipment or relocating existing equipment might streamline portions of a complex workflow.

In services processes, creating workflow isn’t easy because office processes tend to be invisible. You will need to make these processes visible and intelligently adapt Lean principles to create flow.

Determine Future State Organizational Structure

Infrastructure consists of the sustaining elements in an organization. They may not add value in the eyes of the customer, but they facilitate or assist your processes. Infrastructure includes scheduling, training, culture, organization structure, quality methods, utility systems, costing systems, and investment policies and many other elements. Some of these elements are ingrained in attitudes, habits and culture rather than explicit in specific policies and procedures.

Identify Your Own Lean Tools and Techniques

Based on your vision of the future state, pick the appropriate tools and principles of Lean process improvement. You may also identify other world class process improvement techniques that are not on the usual list of Lean tools.

Identify Priorities

Next, identify priorities and precedents. Precedence may require the use of certain principles to make some other principle practical. For example, Quick Changeover (SMED) may be necessary to enable kanban and work cells. Work cells also function better with small lots. The precedence might therefore be Work cells-SMED-Kanban. In reality, these are likely to be concurrent as well as sequential.

Priorities depend partly on precedence but they also depend on return on investment. By giving priority to those Lean improvements, products and areas that promises the fastest and largest returns, the Lean transformation becomes self financing. You can use focused-improvement tools such as Kaizen events to get immediate gains and payback for your investment. The potential difference between lean and non-lean companies is not 5-10 percent, it is sea change differences in quality, cost, delivery and, of course, profit.

Another factor in setting priorities is the quick wins or “low hanging fruit” principle. For many different reasons, it may be very quick and easy to implement one or another of your selected Lean improvements. It thus makes sense to give such improvements high priority.

Develop the Plans

With a broad overview of the situation and a vision of the future and knowledge of precedents and priorities, you can begin to plan your course of action.

There are eight steps for implementing and sustaining Lean improvements:

  1. Gain Management Commitment
  2. Identify the key process or value stream
  3. Train employees in the Lean concepts
  4. Map the Current State of the process or value stream
  5. Identify the Lean Metrics that best suit your organization
  6. Map the Future State of the process or value stream
  7. Develop Kaizen and Project plans to achieve the Future State
  8. Implement the Future State plans

Your Company is Unique

Many organizations have tried to succeed at lean in the past by copying the solutions that other organizations have found, either through benchmarking or out of a book. Your company is unique and will likely have some unique problems and constraints – you must customize Lean thinking to fit your organization so you can find your own answers.

Never stop collecting the lessons you learn along your path to lean. The Lean transformation is a journey not a destination and it will require you to reflect upon your experiences and each and every lesson you learn along the way.