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Going Lean: Continuing the Journey

jamie flinchbaughThis is the second in a three-part series of articles based on insights provided by speakers at VMA’s 2011 Manufacturing Workshop & Tour, held May 4-6 in Atlanta.

The most common reason companies start a lean program is because everyone else is doing it—it’s the “program of the month,” said Jamie Flinchbaugh, co-founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center.

People in industry tend to think in terms of the popular definition for lean, which is doing more with less. However, “I’ve never seen a company cut its way to prosperity,” Flinchbaugh pointed out.

He explained the difference in this way: “You can clean out your junk drawer, but eventually it’s going to fill back up.” The drawer may look good for awhile, but lean is not born from what is visible, but rather “how we think,” he said. In other words, lean is based on following a set of principles and problem-solving tools that back up those principles, and success is found not in the tools themselves, “but how we use those tools.”

The principles have to be engrained within the subconscious of the organization—part of the company’s culture, he said.

Flinchbaugh offered attendees five principles he considers vital, but warned those in attendance that as with any guidelines: “They are not always right. You have to make your own” guiding points, according to the unique qualities of the company and the culture that’s already there.

Flinchbaugh’s principles included:

Establish high agreement. An understanding must be reached that a common way or process will be established and that it will take precedence over the individual’s way of doing things.

“The easy thing to do is to say you’ll agree to something, then leave the room and do it however you think,” Flinchbaugh said. But employees must learn to value the process more than doing things their own way. That means establishing a way to battle out difference in a candid, cooperative manner. One tool he said was valuable in this area is checklists, a highly used in tool in the aircraft industry. He compared the safety checklists and standards in the aircraft industry to how the health care industry, with its highly trained individuals but no commonly accepted standards, gets things done. “If aviation had the safety track record of health care, a 747 would crash every single day,” Flinchbaugh pointed out.

Directly observe work. Instead of focusing on the end result of the processes, companies that think lean learn to stand on the roof and look down at each process to understand how the result was accomplished, Flinchbaugh said. At one point, the buzzword in the industry was “re-engineering,” which was basically learning to forget about current realities and finding ways to start all over again. However, some companies that followed that practice went bankrupt because “if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know where you’re going.”

“It’s just as important to understand WHY something is profitable as to understand that it IS profitable,” he said.

mousetrap vmaFlinchbaugh suggested that companies step back and observe what activities are performed, how customers and suppliers are connected and how information, material and people flow through the process. He compared it to the old children’s Mousetrap game in which each step of the process is critical to winning the game. And to demonstrate that point, he had Mousetrap set up on each table in the seminar. A portion of the workshop was devoted to having everyone follow the game strictly following the rules, then repeating the process with certain conditions changed. The results clearly showed that when the attendee teams focused on each small process, they could attain substantial improvements in the end result.

Flinchbaugh observed that change is not something to be feared “but an opportunity to learn. We observe each step. We develop hypotheses. We check those hypotheses. Then we take action on what we learned from the experiment,” he said. Experimentation is critical to the process because “if we jump on the first solution that comes to mind, we eliminate the more creative ideas,” he said.

Eliminate systematic waste. Although lean is not just about waste elimination, such elimination is part of the picture. But how it is approached makes a difference when dealing with people at work.

People think of waste elimination as an act of willpower, but “it shouldn’t be this way when people are trying to do the right thing,” he said.

Flinchbaugh suggested a white board approach: having teams write down everywhere they see waste and then look at the list on a periodic basis to see what can be done. He also suggested “waste walks”: having employees walk through their own areas looking for ways that resources could be better used.

People in manufacturing tend to think “waste” refers to the product itself, but Flinchbaugh points out that there are seven general areas where waste occurs in manufacturing including: transportation of any materials, paperwork, or shipping; inventory stockpiling and orders; motion of people; waiting times for products on the line or people needing to take action; over-processing or taking duplicative action; overproduction or making more than immediately needed; and defects.

Create Systematic Problem Solving. Problem solving on a system-wide basis begins with creation of a positive culture. To plan and execute this culture change throughout the company, its employees must go through a three-step process: First they have to understand the changes that need to be made, then they have to experience the changes and finally, they have to reflect on successes and failures. “We need them (employees) to really believe in the changes to have them become part of who they are,” he said.

Create a Learning Organization: To create a culture that is system-wide requires training, and Flinchbaugh suggested this education occur in a cascade manner in which the top boss teaches the vice presidents, who teach their staff, who teach those they deal with. “If your boss is teaching it to you, you know it’s important, and if you know you have to train someone else, you will be paying attention,” he explained. “You can’t lead a culture train by commanding it happen. You need to teach it,” he added.


Problem Solving

One of the keys in making principles work is how the company looks at its problems, Flinchbaugh says. Most traditional organizations cringe when they discover problems exist, but a lean organization embraces problems as a way to embrace positive change.

“Problems are opportunities. We use them to move towards the idea state, not just return to current reality,” he said. Many tools exist for problem solving in an organization, but they should begin with a well-defined statement of what the problem is.

“That statement should be so clear it’s like recording it with a video camera,” he said.

Such clarity will help with the rest of the process of problem solving—which is to look at why the problem exists in the first place, what the eventual goal for solving it would be, and then delineating steps for getting to that goal.

“When you have two people across from each other in a room, it can get personal,” Flinchbaugh explained. “But if you have these steps down on a white board or on paper, it takes the personal out of it and makes it about the problem.”

» To read the first article in this series, click here.


Resources

For those seeking more information on lean thinking, Flinchbaugh suggested:

The Lean Learning Center at www.leanlearningcenter.com

The Hitchhikers Guide to Lean at www.hitchhikersguidetolean.com

The Lean Library at www.theleanlibrary.com


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