Lean is often regarded as simply targeting cost reduction through the elimination of waste. A quick-win approach may focus on eradicating the prime culprits in a piecemeal fashion at the tactical or, often, operational level. However, this was not the original intent and the need to regain a more strategic perspective seems obvious. For a more impactful and sustainable result a broader systems thinking approach should be adopted; one that integrates Lean principles with those of project, program and change management.
“Improvement usually means doing something that we have never done before.” – Shiego Shingo
It’s not simply about eliminating waste (muda); that’s just an easy place to start. Overburdening (muri) people, systems and equipment is an important consideration since it correlates with issues in health, safety, quality and reliability. This is where many of the frustrations and problems associated with the workplace reside. Standardising outputs and processes can help reduce the flow of material and information to optimum levels but must be supported by systems and infrastructure. Variability (mura) in flow results in a system being designed to accommodate the peaks and, therefore, introduces waste when operating below this level. This is usually countered by implementing a pull-based ‘just-in-time’ system. However, whilst it is desirable to design a system for regular, predictable workflow this may be quite difficult outside of a manufacturing environment. Regardless, it should be easy to see that all three ‘M’s (muda, muri and mura) are interconnected and need to be treated holistically.
Muri is focused on planning and preparation (incl. training). Mura is focused on smoothing and stabilising workflows and transitions. Muda is uncovered within the process and eliminated, or, at least, reduced through a program (or better, a culture) of continuous improvement. What is important is to eliminate muda by focusing on its roots in muri and mura. This is systems thinking.
There are eight wastes (muda) identified by the Lean literature: overproduction, excess inventory, transportation (of materials and information), movement (of people), waiting, over-processing, defects and under-utilised talent. The first two are traditionally considered the most fundamental since they often drive many of the others in addition to hiding issues in those areas.
Typical strategies for overcoming these include: demand-driven production, reducing work-in-progress through pull-systems, reorganising work-centres based on flow maps to bring critical interfaces closer, job redesign for improved ergonomics, holistic optimisation for overall system flow, task automation and aggregation, simplifying tasks to reduce errors and engaging all staff in the innovative process of continuous improvement (Kaizen).
Much of this aligns perfectly with the systems engineering tenets of designing the solution architecture for maximum cohesion within blocks (works-centres) whilst maintaining a loose coupling between them that is managed across well-defined/designed interfaces.
What needs to be avoided is a disconnect between activity in the solution space and a bigger picture that includes both external as well as internal perspectives. Internally, there are business and employee needs. Externally, there are market, supply-chain and societal needs. All of these should be married in a human-centred design approach that broadly examines what is desirable among all stakeholders before applying feasibility and viability constraints. Utilising Lean approaches to create better experiences for people and to reduce environmental impact, for example, are natural extensions to a business-focused model.
Developing a pull-based strategy and combining it with program management paradigms will focus the implementation and properly engage the stakeholders. Approaching Lean in this way will reduce risk and help ensure a sustainable result that balances cost reduction with growth.
In tandem, integrating proper change management is crucial because a big part of innovation rests in the organisational culture and Lean is no different in that respect. Several years ago I encountered a somewhat skewed interpretation of Lean – “less employees are needed” – a viewpoint that would be an important barrier to sustainable implementation. Hopefully, by adopting a broader focus that both includes and engages employees in the process, this type of fear-based resistance can be overcome. As with all programs of this type, clarity of purpose is essential, and metrics need to be both meaningful and within the control of those being held accountable.
So, if you are considering a Lean transformation, make sure you consider the whole landscape and think holistically about your objectives and key results. Also, in my view, it’s more important to think, focus, implement, learn and adapt than to have a poorly aligned approach infused with an unstructured deployment of every tool in the book…
“Continuous improvement is not about the things you do well ‐ that’s work. Continuous improvement is about removing the things that get in the way of your work. The headaches, the things that slow you down, that’s what continuous improvement is all about.” – Bruce Hamilton