People don’t go to Toyota to work, they go there to think” – Taiichi Ohno
Although much of what we now call lean has been practiced by Toyota and its suppliers for decades, most of the world began to learn about it in the 1990s with books like The Machine that Changed the World and Lean Thinking. It has been more than 25 years since then and, although companies in a variety of industries are well into their lean journeys and showing positive results, there are still many people who have trouble thinking beyond lean as a strategy for high-volume or automotive manufacturing.
As someone who has worked in a variety of industries, I have encountered difficulties applying lean thinking in certain situations, but it was due more to cultural reasons than industry differences. Regardless of the industry, if the organization has an aim and uses processes to achieve that aim – and they all do – lean thinking applies. Lean is about continually thinking, learning, and getting better about what you do; not about producing cars. If your processes are not perfect, you don’t already know everything there is to know about your business, or change regularly occurs in your organization or industry, then lean can help.
During my early days in oil and gas, I got a lot of pushback about the suitability of lean to the industry. When I heard the “we don’t make cars” argument, my response was usually if Toyota produced oil & gas and we made cars, we would say lean applies only to oil and gas. The same goes for any industry.
It’s Always Easier Somewhere Else
It is common to talk to people in various industries who believe that lean applies easily to other industries but is much more difficult in their own. Even within an industry, I’ve met people who believe their own circumstances are so unique that, even though other organizations or areas may apply lean thinking fairly successfully, it does not fit their own situation.
Getting people past the notion that lean will not work in an organization or industry requires continual coaching, demonstration, and a lot of patience. It also requires educating people about the basis for lean and how it drives learning and improvement. The key is to get people to understand lean beyond the tools so they will start to see where they have gaps in performance, knowledge, and learning. A tools-focus in lean, something that is far too common, leads people to google things like 5S, value stream mapping, or SMED, and only find examples of application to Toyota or other high-volume manufacturing situations. Seeing examples like this tends to cement the idea that the practice is unsuited to their own situation.
The Lean System
Lean is about thinking and learning, and if a business is experiencing problems of any kind, there is room to learn. The basic steps to drive lean are shown below. The key to success is to use the steps to learn by doing, which requires clarity on the expected result of each decision, action, and process, and using the actual results to see where things did or did not provide results as expected.
Lean is a system comprised of several elements that work together to drive learning and improvement and, like any system, if you leave out one or more components, it won’t work.
1. PURPOSE: Every organization must understand its purpose to have any chance of sustaining success. The purpose, consisting of why the company exists (the mission) and where it is headed (the vision) must drive everything it does. The key is to make it clear, a stretch (difficult, but not impossible), inspiring, and focused on providing value.
2. BUSINESS NEEDS: Visions tend to describe the future in general terms like industry-leading, most respected, improve society, etc. This is okay because what is considered industry-leading today is not necessarily what it will mean 5-10 years from now and you don’t want a specific target to mislead the organization. This element of lean thinking includes the 3-5 year objectives that make the vision much more concrete. Although many industrial companies often identify the gaps in terms of safety, quality, delivery, cost, and people development (SQDCP), it is important to tailor the objectives to the organization’s needs. Basically, the objectives define how the organization needs to perform in the next 3-5 years in order to remain on-track to the vision.
Also included in this element is the one-year plan that gets even more specific regarding what needs to happen in the current year to remain on-track to the 3-5 year objectives. The one-year plan identifies the current year SQDCP targets, which defines how the organization needs to perform this year given its current processes and systems (assuming that regular problem-solving will be required to deal with the daily problems), as well as the 2-3 areas where a step-change in performance is required to stay on track to the 3-5 year objectives (i.e., kaizen/breakthrough problem-solving). Using an oil and gas producer, a current year target could be production of 25,000 barrels of oil produced per day (possible with current processes and systems), while a breakthrough could be the need to reduce cost per barrel from $24 to $18 within 3 years (which would require a step-change in processes or systems).
3. STANDARDS: Once the gaps and performance targets are clear, it is necessary to identify the standards that need to be met in line with business needs. An example of standards within an oil and gas operation could be that meeting a production target requires an offshore platform to operate at 95% reliability, which, in turn, requires a maintenance technician to change a pump filter in 24 minutes. In another example, a coffee shop could determine that, to meet customer requirements, all customers must receive their coffee within 4 minutes of walking into the shop, requiring the person taking the order to select any product on the order screen within 2 seconds. Setting standards requires a clear understanding of the business and continual improvement.
4. STANDARD WORK: Standard work consists of the instructions that, if followed, will enable the standards to be met. In the examples above, instructions provide a step-by-step description of the work to be done to change the filter in 24 minutes or serve the customer within 4 minutes. Two key points about standard work are (1) the instructions should be created and regularly improved by the people who actually do the work; and (2) the instructions must be clear and simple to follow. It is also important that the standard work is regarded as the best known way to perform the work today, and must be followed until a better way is discovered and the instructions are changed.
5. ACTUAL PERFORMANCE: Learning requires clearly and continually measuring the actual performance to understand where the gaps between performance and the standards exist. If actual performance meets the standards – the pump filter is changed in 24 minutes – then the thinking returns to step 2 to continually assure that business has not changed and that the standards still meet the business or customer needs.
6. IDENTIFY PROBLEMS/GAPS: The real power of lean thinking occurs when actual performance does not meet standards because this is where continual improvement truly happens. For the business to improve, we need people to quickly speak up when problems occur. Whether through an andon signal (lights and music that immediately grab attention) or dashboards that are updated frequently, the key is to find ways to make all problems highlighted quickly. To assure this happens, leaders need to encourage and recognize team members for identifying problems quickly. Taking it one step further, making problems visible should be an expectation of every person in the organization.
7. RESOLVE PROBLEMS: Once problems are identified – i.e., actual performance does not meet the standard – there needs to be a consistent way to understand and resolve the gaps. Rather than calling on black belts to come in and lead the process, lean requires that everyone become problem-solvers. Those closest to the work need to be actively involved in closing the gaps and, to make this happen, leaders need to teach and coach team members how to do it. In many cases, problem-solving leads to changing standards and/or standard work to ensure that improvements stick.
8. DO IT AGAIN: The lean system requires that the process never ends, so the team needs to continue to review business needs, set and revise standards, identify gaps in performance, and solve problems.
Not as Easy as it Sounds
Although following the lean system as described above appears fairly simple and straightforward, it is anything but easy. Each step requires transformation in leadership, thinking, and culture to be effective. Two areas that generally require significant change include transforming managers into coaches and making a culture where it is safe – and even expected – to make problems visible.
The all-too-common approach of focusing on the tools will make the application of lean to other industries difficult – if not impossible. Focusing on the philosophy and transformation in the way people think and approach the business, however, will make the application to other industries far easier and significantly more successful.