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Solving Problems with Lean: Not All Problems are Created Equal

Ask The Experts | By | 10 Aug 2022 | 5 minute read

So much has already been written about Lean manufacturing principles, its methodology, and its tools that, quite frankly, it’s difficult to write anything new without restating what’s already been said. 

But for some reason—despite the volumes of available information, articles, podcasts, books, and experienced consultants—companies and industries still struggle to effectively adopt Lean management principles, even if they understand them on an academic level. They frequently fail with incorporating the cultural aspects, achieving strategic alignment, and attaining effective tactical execution.  

Applying Lean Principles: What Went Right and What Went Wrong?

Thoughtful debates continue on various topics regarding how to effectively develop a Lean culture, such as (but not limited to):

  • top-down vs. bottom up 
  • slow and steady vs. fast and furious
  • hire specialists vs. grow organically

(The answer to each of these requires one to simply pick an option, by the way). We make things complicated very quickly, but it doesn’t have to be. What gets lost is the fact that the power of Lean lies in its logic and simplicity.  

I’ve seen many Lean Initiatives come and go, sometimes multiple times at the same company. The reasons for their struggles aren’t particularly unique, in fact, they are pretty universal. How familiar is, “Lean won’t work here because…”

  • “…we’re not manufacturing.” 
  • “…we don’t build cars.”
  • “…it’s just another flavor of the month.” 
  • “…we’re just different.”

The truth is, Lean has been the flavor of the month going on 40 years now. And yet, we still act like it’s some philosophical enigma to be explained and not just good, sound business practices. 

Remember, Toyota didn’t set out to create the Lean production system. It was born of necessity, studied by the West, documented, and described as best as possible. In other words, it was discovered more than it was invented.

Lean as a Cultural Transformation

The more Lean is treated as something to do in addition to someone’s day job, the less likely it will take root. Lean is as much a cultural transformation as it is a way to improve customer value, reduce costs and increase capacity. That transformation has to occur within the way we operate, not in addition to it. I’ve often heard it said, “We want to be Lean, not have it done to us.” 

So what does all this have to do with problem-solving? I’m glad you asked because the answer is simple.  

In many Lean transformation efforts, employees are encouraged to fix the problems that are within their authority and control. This is often encouraged in the name of employee empowerment, which is a positive sentiment, but could actually have a negative impact on the overall system it’s affecting. Improvement suggestion boxes and quick and easy Kaizen programs are good for creating buzz and engaging employees but not so good at system optimization.  

In other words, even though you are solving a problem, you could make things worse if you’re not solving the right problem.  

Lean Mission Alignment and the 5 Lean Principles

There is a logical flow that should occur when solving problems.  Every resource comes with limitations, whether it’s time, money, work capacity, or something else.  And with these limits comes the necessity to prioritize.

This is where the principles of Lean thinking come into play. Let us recall the five Lean principles: 

  1. Define customer value
  2. Map the value stream
  3. Create flow
  4. Establish pull
  5. Continuously improve

There’s a reason “Continuously Improve” comes last. It’s not meant to be ad hoc and random but strategic and targeted on the waste having the biggest impact on the flow and capacity of the system. 

You must be careful that this doesn’t become a cost-cutting exercise, however. Thinking of it in those terms quickly shifts the focus from generating value for the customer to maximizing profits for the company. Remember: cost reduction is a byproduct of improved process flow but not the immediate purpose of it.  

Once flow is achieved at the pace of customer demand, waste must continue to be eliminated to reduce the number of resources needed to maintain it, thus freeing up capacity used to generate additional revenue.  

So, if done right, the elimination of waste needs to be focused on maximizing the flow of value (which improves the bottom line) and increasing capacity (which improves the top line).

A Systematic Approach to Problem-Solving

All of this requires a systems perspective of the various processes used to generate value. This perspective is usually held at higher, more strategic levels of an organization, not at the front-line worker. 

These are typically the same people who set production targets and are accountable for the operation’s performance. Good leaders in these roles will include the input and experience of their front-line workers when setting future target conditions for the system. But do note that this practice is not unique to Lean management principles. 

Once established, they should work together as a team to identify and eliminate the waste having the biggest impact on preventing that future condition from being a reality. It’s at this point that the focus shifts from strategic tools like value stream mapping, to tactical solutions such as:

As mentioned earlier, the focus should be on solving the problems that will have the biggest impact on improving system throughput and increasing capacity. So, in order to be effective at problem-solving, you need both the top-down strategic perspective coupled with bottom-up solutions. 

One interesting thing to note is that none of this requires you to be involved in manufacturing or the production of automobiles in order for the Lean management principles to be effectively applied.  This is mainly because these principles are universal, proven management practices, whether Lean manufacturing, Lean construction, Lean Six Sigma, or Lean-Agile principles—once again, pick one.  

Taking the Next Steps with Lean Principles

Lean transformations are the epitome of things that are simple but hard. The principles and tools are the simple part, getting people to buy in and do it right are hard.

Strong leadership and clear communication as to why you are solving the problems you need to solve are the keys to success. That’s probably why so many Lean initiatives tend to fizzle out. I have often found both of those things to be lacking.  

So before you ask anyone, especially the front-line workers, to change, you need to carefully craft the message as to why and how it’s going to make their lives better. Getting them to buy into the company’s mission and understand the vital role they play in it is a good first step.  

Then, you must have a clear strategy for achieving that mission as a team and the changes necessary to accomplish it. Seek input from your front-line workers on how the problems will be solved and have them take ownership of the improvements under the guidance, support, and direction of leadership.  

Start small and work your way up to bigger and more impactful initiatives as you get good at it. After this, use your success stories to gain momentum for the next one. 

Most importantly, keep it simple and ensure the focus always stays on maximizing value for your customers, and everything else will take care of itself.

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