Saturday, March 17, 2012

Beginning the Lean Journey

Executive Summary:
So you are just beginning your first venture into the realm of business and process improvement.  Read this post offered up by friend and colleague D.R. Callentine.  He describes his own experience and discovery as one just starting out.  His message is “right on the money.”

The Rest of the Story:
After a certain point of reading books, attending seminars, and even dipping the toe into the pool a few times, you will realize you just need to jump in and get started on your Lean journey.  The first thing you will find is that the flood of information, terms, forms, templates, software, books, tools, and every other form of product marketed to assist you on this bold excursion will have you swirling around and around as you attempt to understand, organize, and apply it to your business situation.  I feel your pain as I am caught up in this confusion as I write this. However, as with anytime we are lost and looking for direction, it helps to keep our eyes focused on one firmly anchored point, even if it's unclear if that point is our actual desired direction or destination.  Once firmly fixed in our sight, we can begin making progress and then evaluate and correct as we push forward.  In that same sense, it doesn't really matter whether you standardize on and embrace DMAIC, 6 sigma, 8Ds, A3, 5Ys, or any of the other methods a bunch of guys came up with ahead of you.  However, what is important is to realize that whether you embrace these items or create your own version, you will need to find a standard, common way to approach this process.  You can use their language or invent your own so long as everyone understands what is being said.  One thing to consider though: inventing your own language will require an interpreter should you need to converse with anyone outside your company or should anyone move to your company from another organization.

Let's get back to establishing that single fixed point to aim at.  There are so many whizzing by, how do you choose?  First let me say that most of these marketed items, though not intentionally, will make you feel as though there is something you still need to learn about basic problem solving, process mapping, or simplification.  Don't let that feeling gain a foothold and don't abandon your skills as a problem solver thinking there is something you lack.  Instead, I suggest focusing on a single, stationary point to help you navigate the maelstrom of information and helpful suggestions.  Many of the marketed solutions are so big and broad or complex that it is difficult to truly focus on them.  The point I propose is simple.  Though it seems small, it is prominent enough to see from a great distance and shines bright enough to penetrate the densest of hazes.  May I suggest you focus on this single statement: "Variation is the Enemy".

"Huh," you say?  How on earth does that help me make sense of all this stuff?  How do I organize and decide what things to buy, adapt, create, and learn to make meaningful progress?  Well, let's just look at all these tools and simply ask, "What is the problem all these things are trying to solve?" At first glance it might appear that they are all trying to solve different problems.  Some help you identify problems.  Some help measure.  Some are means of control or feedback or analysis or mapping or identifying waste.  Well, perhaps that is how they are to be used, but the fundamental problem they all, every last one of them, is trying to solve is this:  standardization.  They are all attempting to get you to standardize on a method for doing all these other great things.  They are an attempt to eliminate variation, the true enemy, as you engage in the battle against waste, problems, and defects.  It's not that any of these items do anything fundamentally different than what you instinctively already know how to do (though some will no doubt give you great new ideas such as statistical analysis or how to implement a control plan).  They all are simply trying to get you, and the others in your company, to go about it in the same way.  They are all selling a methodology for conforming to a process.

So, as you are trying to grab hold of the swirling mass of buzzwords, just remember, "Variation is the enemy".  Before you can streamline the messed up processes in your organization, before you can effectively identify and eliminate waste, you need to take just a few moments to establish the process by which you will do this.  What is the problem you are trying to solve?  The first one should be this: how do we as a company effectively and methodically identify and eliminate waste?  Like any problem, you follow a simple and methodical approach.  It may be slow, but it works every time.  Occasionally the problem and its solution will be obvious, but you will still want to capture it, measure it, and control it following some kind of standard.  So, keeping in mind that variation is the enemy, evaluate the various tools and approaches on how effectively they will satisfy this truth.  You might start by asking yourself, what is the biggest need I have in attacking this monster?  Do I need a sword or a shield, a horse and a falcon?  To evaluate the various tools, you might ask, “Is it easy to understand and use?  Will people have access to it?”  If people cannot find it, use it, or understand it, it is likely that this tool, no matter how good it might be, will not be effective in solving your problem (variation).  Having a $100,000 piece of software that few have access to and fewer still know how to properly use will only serve to add to your problems, not address them.

Start simple.  Focus on standardizing and eliminate the variation in your company.  Find simple, basic, understandable tools, or adapt them so they work for your situation.  There is no single tool that will work for everything, so keeping it simple to use and understand will make it all the more powerful as your company will easily embrace it and unconsciously begin the journey to eliminate variation and, ultimately, wasteful practices.


Stay wise, friends.

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