Your son cuts his lip from an inadvertent elbow while playing basketball in the local neighborhood courts. One look is enough for you to see that the bad gash just above the upper lip will need stitches. You take him to the ER to get the work done. The time is 4 P.M. on a Friday.
You go expecting to wait up to an hour if the line is bad. At the reception desk, a nurse takes your information, hands you a box of tissues and tells you to sit down and wait. And how long will you wait? After 90 minutes of TV, your son’s name is called and you are told to follow the nurse. However, you are soon disappointed to find out you are only being assigned to an empty examination room. Your disappointment increases when you see there is no TV in this room. Seriously? You can’t even finish Judge Judy while waiting?
Finally, after another hour of holding tissues to the mouth, the doctor arrives for a preliminary examination. And then leaves. Eventually, finally, this waiting does come to an end. The entire process might require four hours, during which time your son receives perhaps twenty minutes of medical attention. You and your boy leave the ER at 8 P.M., with four stitches and a sheaf of papers you signed. It was not free.
What just happened? Four stitches in four hours? What a waste. Now apply this scenario to manufacturing.
One of the core elements of “lean” manufacturing is elimination of waste. And anything that does not add value to the customer is waste. The Toyota Camry in the factory receiving a paint job? Value to the customer. The movement of the painted Camry to the dry-out area? Waste. Why? Because the movement from one section to another is not something the customer pays for. The customer does not care that you have to move the car throughout the factory.
The word lean has grown exponentially over the last ten years. Toyota developed it, and it’s meaning is simple: using fewer materials to get more done.
After Japan was devastated by WWII, Toyota realized it had to develop a new strategy as a means to combat giants such as Ford. By 2008 Toyota was the number one car maker in the world, and remarkably again in 2012 even after the Kamaishi earthquake and Fukushima disaster. Why? Because lean practices, at the core of Toyota’s success, help to buffer the impacts of unpredicatable events.
Lean is not a way to get workers to move faster or way to eliminate more workers to save on salary costs. Lean gets us thinking about how to provide value to the customer, through everything we do. The result is that we get better quality and a faster process. Worker productivity will increase with lean (which is great), but that is not the explicit goal.
Lean was first created for application on the assembly line, but is now being used in a wide variety of businesses beyond manufacturing. The ER serves only as one example of a service industry that sorely needs lean. Another surprising area where we are seeing lean initiatives? The start-up sector.
After getting frustrated with a lack of success in starting his own company, Eric Ries, author of the bestselling book The Lean Startup, used the lean principles of eliminating waste, providing value in everything for the end customer in small batches. Lean thinking creates speed in the flow of start-ups.
But lean isn’t always easy to master. Barrier number one to a successful application of lean is internal politics. Going back to that ER example, hospitals and many other businesses have a high level of inefficiency due to politics. The solution to this is simply, trust. Look at any successful business applying lean and you see a high level of trust.
So, if you are interested in reducing costs, speeding up your processes, providing more value for the customer, and eliminating waste, I suggest investigating lean processes and applying them to your own core business practices.