Many companies attempt to implement lean principles or elements of the Toyota Production System. They strive to create a lean manufacturing process to eliminate waste and create a streamlined flow that enables shorter lead times and higher productivity. Unfortunately, too often the company resources who are in charge of guiding the implementation get stuck on the details and struggle to make progress. Here’s a key point: lean is about speed and continuous improvement. Figure out what’s broken in your current process. Design your future state, implement elements quickly. Test and improve. Don’t over think it, just get moving.

Design Your Future State

Designing your future state begins with understanding your current state extremely well. Review your current results and see where you’re super pleased versus unhappy. You need to review and understand where waste exists in your current processes, that is, activities that do not add value from the customer’s perspective. You need to also understand and look for complexity, then itemize all of the issues and problems that exist in the way that your process is working today.

Designing your future state is more than fixing what is broken in your current state. You want to redesign to minimize waste, reduce complexity, and eliminate the issues and problems that are present in your current state. Not just anyone can design the future state based on what they see in the current state. You want to have an expert help you inject lean principles to create your integrated production system (or operating system for you non-manufacturing companies).

Now it’s a matter of moving from your current state to your future state by implementing different, specific initiatives and actions in a planned-out sequence that will build your future state and provide results as quickly as possible. It’s important for you to recognize that full implementation of your future state will take a few years, but also recognize the benefits in terms of reduced cost, reduced lead time, higher quality, improved safety, and other important metrics that will begin to show up right away as soon as you begin making some of these changes.

Implement Elements Quickly

Remember that what you are implementing are critical pieces to a fully integrated production system. This fully integrated system will have many elements including all of the production steps and support steps that are required for your company to produce the product or service that the customer is buying from you.

It is important for you to understand the basic lean principles behind those strategies you are about to implement. Overtime you should strive for mastery, but the basics are all you really need in order to get moving.

Much of what we learn as we implement the lean principles comes from our experiences and learning by doing. Many times, this is within the context of kaizen events where your team gets some quick training on the basic principles, and is then guided by a lean expert as you implement the concepts within that kaizen week. The idea is to implement the basics very quickly and then allocate time after that initial week to make sure the changes you put in place take hold and sustain over time. It’s rare that any principles, including lean principles, can blindly be applied in a company without some creative application to make sure things take hold in the situations that you have in your company.

kan ban to do list board kanban collaboration planning task

Test and Improve

The reason that continuous improvement is so important is because lean implementation is not a blind cookie cutter exercise. You have very specific and unique dynamics in your company that you have to take into consideration to make the changes to put your future state in place. As you make the changes you need, observe with your own two eyes to see how the processes are working. Notice how people interact, whether they know what to do, whether things work the way you expected them to work the first time. You might find that they need further training or that you need to tweak the application of those lean principles in order to work better than how you implemented them on the first shot.

All of these things happen on a regular basis. They are normal and you need to expect that you will be tweaking your processes not just one time but many times over the course of time. Observe what works perfectly right now and notice what isn’t quite right. For those things that are not quite right, dive in deeper, understand what is going on and then make further improvements to catch up and get the results back on track.

The other way to think about continuous improvement is that this fully integrated production system can be quiet complicated. Not that the end result is complicated, but going from where you are today to where you want to go could be a rather complicated process that requires multiple iterations to get things in place. It’s rare that you can simply snap your fingers and go from your current systems in to your desired future state all in one go.

The reality is you may have to implement in multiple small bites in order to put a significant chunk of your integrated production system together. To the naked eye this might look like many redo’s of one piece of the system, but the reality is its part of your orchestrated plan to take baby steps forward along the way. It might not be immediately obvious, but when you’re always in motion, always taking action towards an end result, you’ll get results much faster than trying to plan everything out perfectly in great detail over the course of years and not taking any steps along the way.

Your best move is to get moving!

A Real Example: Kanban Calculations

Let’s use an example as simple as implementing a supermarket using kanban cards to signal what to produce in order to replace that which was consumed from your supermarket.

In almost all cases, Kanban quantities are calculated using elaborate formulas that take into consideration a variety of variables such as customer demand, demand variability, change over time, lead-time, production frequency and other situational considerations. The result of your long complicated formula will give you a number of Kanban cards to represent how much inventory you should hold.

The thing is, the result is never a whole number. It will always have a decimal – a fraction number of Kanban cards. So you are left with the choice to round up or down to whole number in the end. Then you have to decide if you turn in the Kanban card when you break into the container or when the container is empty, and then adjust your number of Kanban cards accordingly.

Sounds complicated? Hold on a moment..

Shift in Perspective

I was in some lively discussion with some of my team who were trained in this methodology at a variety of great lean companies. Folks in the discussion came from Wiremold, Danaher, Newell Rubbermaid and had training from ex-Toyota consultants.

The first interesting point in this example is that the basis of the Kanban formula was the same by each of the individuals in this conversation, but the details were slightly different. For example, the Danaher formula used the “round” function then added one to the total. The Newell Rubbermaid formula used “round up” but did not add one to the total. In the Wiremold example, they didn’t use such a complicated formula at all, but simply took into account the daily consumption quantity and estimated the number of Kanban cards for each of the parts that needed to be run within the supermarket and then was alert to adjust quantities quickly.

Here’s the thing, in each case the logic to get to the number of Kanban cards for all of the parts in the supermarket is valid. Let me repeat that… each of those is valid! The thing to do, and this is critical, is to very quickly implement your supermarket (perhaps in a test area at first) and then make the tweaks as you go.

Injecting Continuous Improvement

This is not a “set it one time and forget it” exercise, this is a “set it up and then monitor to see what changes you might need to make in order to get the system to work better” exercise. It is rare that a system like this works seamlessly without any hiccups, so you absolutely need to monitor and tweak the quantities up or down as time goes on.

And then, of course, your production system capabilities are not static. Let’s say your change over time was 3 hours where you calculated your Kanban quantities. Hopefully you can have your changeovers take 2 hours, then 1 hour and even less time down to 15 minutes. Once this happens, the amount of inventory that you require in your system will be way less than what you did on the first day. As your capability improves, modify your system. This reinforces the need for you to factor in the impact of continuous improvement, not just of the variables and of your production system capability, but then recognize that because this is an integrated production system, you will be making changes to the other elements of the systems that you put in place over time.

Concluding Remarks

As you look at situations in your company, please recognize that it is your responsibility to study the principles and apply the thinking that will make the difference for you in the long term. This is not about blindly following a formula or an approach. There was time in the past, maybe at a company where you worked before, maybe from a consultant that shared a formula with you, or maybe just what seemed like a good idea the last time you approached it that you began to follow a particular approach. Know that your past approach is not the only one that will work and might not be the best any longer. Have flexibility in your plan and thinking, move quickly and try it out and see how it works, and be prepared to tweak the process as you go.