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What is lean production?

Quite simply, Lean is a structured approach to empowering people to eliminate waste while striving for continuous improvement to achieve enhanced value to the Customer.

Taiichi Ohno, the father of the infamous Toyota Production System, once said "Having no problems is the biggest problem of all."

In this post we are going to break down Lean into 5 key concepts:

  1. Structured Approach

  2. Empowering People

  3. Eliminate Waste

  4. Continuous Improvement

  5. Enhanced Customer Value

Structured Approach

Lean is a structured approach which means there exists a disciplined and defined set of steps associated with a specific process. Lean Production, also known as Toyota Production System or simply “Lean,” uses a set of tools and concepts that are both simple to understand on its face and deeply insightful. Like the slogan for the game Othello, “A minute to learn…a lifetime to master,” Lean uses a toolkit of methods that are often dismissed as common sense. In fact, they are common sense. But in a world of massive complexity and the inter-operability of today’s business systems, there are limitless opportunities for improvement everywhere.

Lean has a series of tools; some appearing very basic. For example, creating a flowchart (or value stream map) is a visual way of seeing the steps in a process. Value stream maps show a visual representation of the current condition (the way things are today,) rather than the target condition (the way we want things to be.) It helps teams identify steps in the existing process that are value-add or non-value add so that they can be addressed with other Lean tools.

Empowering People

Lean empowers people. It is a concept that can only be truly successful if the whole organization is involved, from new team members to executives in the corner office. A system that excludes even one group in the organization rarely succeeds. To me, the term “employee” has a sterile sense to it; instead, I prefer “team members.” Team members work together, collaborate and understand that each person’s unique role is required to accomplish the organization’s goals. I’ll use the term “team members” from this point on.

When I ran the operations of a pharmacy, we implemented Lean principles from the company’s inception.

Everyone we hired learned about the Lean concept during the interview process. Some were excited about the idea of contributing to continuous improvement, while others preferred to punch the clock 9-to-5 and just do their jobs (defined by them as production, without contributing to continuous improvement.) We told people that we expected them to perform their roles very well. But we also expected them – as experts in their roles – to improve processes associated with that role as they saw opportunities to do so.

Eliminate Waste

There is waste in everything we do. This is a fact of life and to a Lean practitioner, it is an inspiration to do better. To a Lean guy or gal, it is an acceptance that we are always striving for perfection, but we can never quite achieve it, and that’s OK.

The value lies in the journey toward perfection, not in the arrival at the destination. By first accepting that there is waste in everything we do, we can humbly open the emotional and cultural door to continuous improvement.

“We are always striving for perfection, but we can never quite achieve it, and that’s OK."

Still having trouble visualizing waste in everything we do? Students in our Lean classes find the following analogies of imperfection helpful:

· Batting less than 1.000 in baseball

· Seeing dust everywhere, as a scientist does

· Having an immaculate kitchen as you cook Thanksgiving dinner

Continuous Improvement

It’s common for professional Lean practitioners to introduce themselves as a student of Lean – one who is continuously learning. That is to emphasize the journey — that Lean is about a lifetime of learning.

Lean practitioners use the term Current Best Approach (CBA) to emphasize that the current way is only a fleeting best approach, and that continuous improvement will hopefully make today’s best answer to the question obsolete.

The simplest concept of continuous improvement is the Plan-Do-Check-Act, or PDCA loop.

Enhanced Customer Value

There are multiple elements to an excellent customer experience. The first element Customers want is the accuracy of the answer. The second, equally important element, is the timeliness of the answer.

For these reasons many companies set up live chat functionality on their websites as a way to enhance the customer experience. For Customers, the chat experience delivers timely answers to their questions. For companies, it lowers the costs of answering those questions. So if a Customer waits 30 or more seconds to be acknowledged, they will close the chat window and call directly (a more expensive option).

Customers will find the most efficient path down the ‘dirt hill.’ The Customer is forcing the water down that path down the dirt hill based on their own needs, not the needs of the company to lower costs.


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