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Part I: What Is Lean? True Team Empowerment

Tap into your team’s firsthand experience for ways to improve

Taiichi Ohno, father of the Toyota Production System, is known for saying, “Having no problems is the biggest problem of all.” In essence, if you don’t see any problems in your organization, you’re at a standstill, failing to innovate or improve. Lean interrupts this kind of operational stupor.

Lean is a structured approach that empowers people to eliminate waste while striving for continuous improvement. This philosophy achieves enhanced value to the Customer.

This is a common definition that I’ve used for years, and I’m sure it should be attributed to one of the Lean deep thinkers such as Taiichi Ohno, Henry Ford or Jim Womack. Ohno and Ford are the key founders of the Lean movement, while Womack is a modern-day Lean evangelist — more about them later.

Let’s break down “Lean” into its five key concepts mentioned in the definition. (This is Part I of this three-part series where we will cover the first two concepts.)

Taiichi Ohno  Father of the Toyota Production System, which is core to the Principles of Lean Production.
Taiichi Ohno Father of the Toyota Production System, which is core to the Principles of Lean Production.

Taiichi Ohno

Father of the Toyota Production System, which is core to the Principles of Lean Production.

(uncredited photo)

Concept 1 - A 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 commonsense. In fact, they are common sense.

But in a world of massive complexity and the interoperability 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.

You can apply these tools to almost anything that follows a process, from assembling a Boeing 747 to making a peanut butter sandwich. In addition to making physical things, Lean can also apply to services such as reconciling a bank balance, selling a complex product or conducting a medical procedure.

When I first attended Lean Sigma conferences 20 years ago, about 80% of attendees came from manufacturing, and 20% came from services and healthcare. Now the attendance ratio is reversed with most financial services and healthcare organizations having leaders specializing in Lean.

Getting started with Lean is simpler than you think, and begins with a blank piece of paper, a pencil and the patience to sketch out steps in a process.

Concept 2 - 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 an institutional 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. Our company would also be committed to providing resources, rewards and encouragement to help them succeed so they didn’t feel alone and unsupported.

Interviewees were told that if they were doing the exact same job process-wise a year from their start date, we would consider it a performance issue. We hired people who were excited about improving the company by improving the processes because they wanted Customers to have a quality experience.

A Real World Example - Helen Irons Out a Rx-packing Lag

Here’s a situation involving one of those excited team members: a pharmacy technician we’ll call Helen. Helen’s job was to run a medication-packing machine. On a daily basis, she would take a 1,000-capsule container and package them into medication strips encased in a plastic bubble top with a foil bottom. To access the tablet, a nurse or patient would punch the capsule through the foil backing. To perform properly and seal the bubble to the foil, the packing machine required the heating element to be at a certain temperature.

Medication pack with correct dosages | Photo by Simone van der Koelen
Medications pre-filled with a packing machine to provide better patient doses.

The complication was that if the iron was too cool, the packaging would separate during shipping, and pills would fall to the bottom of the box — a defect.

At a company-sponsored quality meeting, she described her typical morning:

“I arrive at 8 a.m., turn on my strip packer, then have to wait for the digital temperature reading to get to 350 degrees. I hang up my coat, take a visit to the restroom, swing by the cafeteria for a cup of coffee, check email, chat with my colleagues, and then at around 8:25 a.m., when the reading is at 350 degrees, I start work,” Helen explained.

She was a very conscientious person, with a strong work ethic. She then proposed an answer:

“That seems like a lot of wasted time. What if the pharmacist-in-charge, who arrives at 7 a.m., has a checklist of things to do when opening the shop? She can turn my machine on at 7 a.m., and I’ll be ready to start work as soon as I arrive,” she said.

What a simple idea. She was trained in the structured approach of Lean, including the value of checklists. We executed her idea within 24 hours, and the results were immediate.

We rewrote the Operating Procedure (OP) to open the shop floor so other pharmacists would add it to their routines. We added the new OP to the training of pharmacists. In the process, we added other steps the person opening the shop floor should take, and other team members contributed.

Here are some of the results for the company:

  • Helen and the three other strip-packing machine operators were immediately more productive, not just that day but every day thereafter.

  • She felt valued and heard because the company had a system designed to encourage, listen to and execute Lean process improvements suggested by the staff.

  • We rewarded her with a bonus for reaching a new level in her Lean belt certification. During her subsequent review, we also acknowledged the continuous improvement she had made, which fulfilled a goal stated in her initial employment interview.

  • The likelihood that defects would occur decreased. Perhaps other operators were impatient or felt production goal pressure to start their packing before the iron was sufficiently hot. By scrutinizing a process that affected packaging, the Customer would likely have fewer mis-packed pills during shipment. We proactively mistake-proofed the possibility of mis-packed medication, a process referred to as poke-yoke.

A few years later, we acquired another pharmacy that did not have a similar shop floor opening process and applied the written OP to that new company. They immediately benefited from the process. When asked why our pharmacy was chosen over other suitors, they cited our intellectual property related to processes and methods like this.

Waste Takes an Emotional Toll on Your People As Well As Profits

Without empowering people, none of this would have occurred. There is no way that pharmacy leadership had the perspective or level of insight to see what needed to be changed. The pursuit of quality and continuous-improvement ideas must come from the people who actually do the work every day. After operating that machine for years, Helen had the feel for that machine like a driver has for the car they drive every day.

If untapped, her insight into that process is profit left on the table. Additionally, her silent daily frustration about having her time and skill wasted erodes her enthusiasm (and that of others) for performing her role.

By having a Lean culture, the company chose a virtuous cycle of improvement rather than a vicious cycle of waste.

Got Waste?

Your team is your biggest ally. Often, the most simple and obvious steps can have the biggest impact on improvement. You just need a process concierge to help you find the right ones to start with.

Erik Young

CEO, Prime Vector

Also read our other blogs on this topic.

For even more information, you can also read or listen my book "The Power of Lean Process: Increase profits, delight customers and improve your company's culture"


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