Extensive training and a thorough understanding of complex analytical tools are required to successfully perform traditional Six Sigma projects. Although this careful and methodical evaluation is an invaluable problem solving technique, traditional Six Sigma projects can be time consuming and must be carefully selected. Lean projects, on the other hand, are different. Lean is intuitive, flexible and can be executed quickly. As a result, almost any business or organizational process can benefit from the application of Lean.

One of the best examples of a Lean operation is the fire department. Firefighters are trained, gear is readied for quick use, plans and backups are developed and tested. When a call is received, information is collected so that the proper resources are dispatched. Additional information about the situation can be communicated en route. Once on the scene, everyone knows what to do and the roles of the firefighters are identified by the color of their helmets, so the roles and responsibilities of all participants are clear to everyone. A number of the Lean tools exhibited by the firefighters can be applied to any process.

What Is a Lean Process?

Lean is associated with the concept of waste reduction. Although Lean projects generally start with the need to become more efficient, the principles may also be applied to any process that is critical to an organization. A process is lean when it:

  • Is driven by customer needs and focuses on activities that the customer is willing to pay for.
  • Runs smoothly without interruptions or delays.
  • Produces only what is needed, when it is needed.
  • Contains standardized and automated tasks and eliminates unnecessary activities.

People performing Lean processes are well trained, and risks associated with the process are identified and addressed before defects are created.

Recognizing the Need for Lean

Sometimes people do not care about creating waste in a process. For instance, I continually push the same “mystery boxes” out of the way in my garage when looking for things I never find. But it is easy to find process inefficiencies that are worth improving. I enjoy watching my kids run frantically around the house trying to find shoes or homework just as much as they enjoy watching me search for lost car keys; these processes are Lean candidates. Anyone can find, just as easily, situations where Lean tools can be applied to address a need for efficiency.

Start thinking Lean. Look for efficiencies and inefficiencies at work and home. Start to recognize waste in a process and identify activities that are not of value.

Lean not only helps to make processes more efficient, but it also improves the quality of a company’s services, increases employee satisfaction and allows a company to be more responsive to the customer.

Starting with Lean Tools

There are a number of Lean tools that are easy to learn and use, and produce impressive results. To learn more about these tools, take a closer look at a process important to you and do one of the following:

Ask someone who knows nothing about your process to “walk” through it with you from beginning to end. Ask this person for their thoughts. The information you gain from explaining your process and responding to “why” questions from someone outside the process will generate ideas for how things could be done differently.

Consider grocery shopping as a simple example. When performing a familiar process, you likely follow the same routine every time without consideration of the steps. Asking questions such as, “Why do you put the fruits and vegetables in your cart first when you later move them a number of times?” will force you to consider your actions and allow you to think about your process differently.

Always remember the customer. Emphasis, in this case, is on value to the shopper. Someone in a hurry and not concerned about price will shop differently than someone not pressed for time but working within a limited budget. When aware of defined value in a process, the person walking the process with you can focus questions and offer more specific recommendations.

Write down the steps of your process. Include all decisions, delays and rework. Invaluable information can be gained simply from looking at the process on paper.

In the grocery shopping scenario, for example, you would capture on paper each action from entering to exiting the store. Documenting your actions will enable you to analyze the entire process. Steps followed routinely may seem illogical when viewed as part of the greater process. You may find, for example, that you shop discounted items last, causing you to replace items with similar ones on sale. Extra steps may be avoided through a simple change in the process.

Think about how you would redesign your process if you could start over. Put the steps on paper. If you had no limits, what would it look like? How close can you get to that ideal process now? Then, make changes to get closer.

What if you could redesign grocery shopping? Maybe time is critical and you would like to avoid the store completely. In your ideal world, you create a grocery list and receive the groceries as they arrive at your door. Identify what is important to you, and imagine the ideal situation. You can then identify gaps between your current process and the ideal process and create a plan to get closer to your ideal state.

“Walk” your process with someone up- or down-stream from your process. There is great benefit to be gained from discussions with those involved in a process that feeds yours or picks up where yours leaves off. Look for an opportunity to clarify requirements or reassign duties so that the process runs more smoothly.

Thinking again as a grocery shopper, suppose others prepare your grocery list and consume the groceries. Take them along with you while you shop. The list preparer may recognize that by listing the items according to the order in which they are encountered in the store, the shopping experience could be much more efficient. In addition, the consumer may explain that certain products would be easier to use (milk cartons with a handle, for example) than others.

A true understanding of the entire process will enable those involved to identify opportunities otherwise unrecognizable when focused on a segment of the process.

Talk to others who perform the same or a similar process. Be specific when discussing the steps and observe the other processes whenever possible. Identifying best practices is a wonderful way to evaluate improvement opportunities that have already been tested.

The final grocery store example is a true story. Two people agreed that when grocery shopping they, “walk through the store and put groceries in the cart.” When the shoppers actually visited the grocery store together, they found that one pushed the cart through the store placing groceries in the cart while shopping, and the other parked the cart in the middle of the store and brought groceries to the cart. The moral: Always observe processes first hand. Differences that are difficult to detect through conversation become obvious through observation.

Improvement Opportunities Guaranteed

There is definitely a need for Six Sigma teams to apply traditional methodology to solve problems. But opportunities also exist to improve processes when defects are not an issue. It is hard to find a process that does not benefit from the application of Lean tools or a workplace that does not benefit from a Lean philosophy.

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