Streamline Processes and Improve Productivity With a Lean Philosophy

A commitment to lean can result in less waste and a healthier bottom line.

With new constraints being placed on businesses daily, many companies are looking for new methods of doing business to remain successful or, even better, move ahead. Various approaches or tactics may be employed, but to see lasting results a system of continuing improvement and waste reduction needs to be built. In manufacturing, these types of systems are generally classified as “lean.” Although reference to lean processes might seem to be another popular trend, the key principles have been around for ages.

What is lean? And how do you do it? Although I have well-practiced short answers, to truly discuss lean is rather involved. Having practiced lean for about a decade and spoken nationally about it for years, I thought it might be time for more than the short answer to these two seemingly simple questions.

Scott Wimberley

Scott Wimberley

Most companies like ours that are entrenched have their own variations of lean philosophies and practice methods. In the interest of describing in reasonable detail, I will share concepts and tools based on lean in three installments. The first installment will discuss what is lean and how to build a lean culture within a business. The second installment will focus on developing standards that guide your business and the practical tool of 5s, a workplace organization and management method. The final installment will detail quality driven process change. I will do my best to convey what we are successfully doing in our facility and hopefully spark an ember in you and your practice.

What is lean?

Lean is a set of management practices based on the Toyota Production System (TPS). TPS was heavily influenced by the teachings of W. Edwards Deming and Toyota’s own study of the early practices of Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company. Some of the earliest written examples of lean thought can be noted in Ben Franklin’s writings in Poor Richard’s Almanac. Specifically, he said wasting time was as prudent as throwing money into the river and avoiding unnecessary costs could be more profitable than increasing sales.

Although Toyota developed the lean process common today, the concept is not solely a Japanese invention, and is used in many places other than Japan.

The principles of lean apply in every business and every process. Every industry or organization, including health care and governments, can apply lean principles and gain their benefits.

We host numerous tours a year as part of our company’s lean initiative. Some of the companies that come through are delegations from large multinational corporations well entrenched in lean. Other companies that tour our facility may have no experience in lean and have fewer than five employees. Everyone always comments on its commonsense philosophy and wonders why everyone isn’t doing it.

The truth is, most of us use lean principles regularly to make life easier and more organized and pleasing.

Before starting any journey you first need to decide where you want to go. Building a lean company is no different. You should have clearly determined what the company mission and goals are and write them down. I like to keep the company mission as visible as possible; it helps with decision making.

Making a product right the first time is a lean strategy. Image: Cascade Dafo

Making a product right the first time is a lean strategy. Image: Cascade Dafo

Once your mission is determined you need a plan of action to achieve it. Although there are benefits of practicing any of the lean tools, a lean management and company culture will keep your efforts from fading and promote drive within all levels of the business. To truly implement lean, management must build the culture. This culture is one of change and involves everyone. It took me some time to understand what lean management is and develop a routine practice of it.