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Common Lean Misconceptions that Hurt Your Frontline

3 minutes, 41 seconds read

Countless people have come into contact with Lean in recent decades, but not every company applying Lean is doing so in a way that supports continuous improvement. As Brad Miller, professor of supply chain management at the University of Houston, explains in the latest Lean Frontline Podcast, it’s not unusual for him to run into people who have had a bad experience with Lean because the program wasn’t management well. Often, he says, a traditional command and control culture tries to apply Lean tools and call itself Lean. But that misses the heart of Lean.

Miller seeks to educate his students and the broader Lean community against common misconceptions, including the following:

Misconception #1: Lean means pushing people to work faster

As Miller explains, people often come to Lean with an understanding that it’s about pushing people to do the work faster or harder. They think, “we have to squeeze as much out of people’s capacity as we possibly can by forcing people to work faster or do things they don’t really want to do.” But, as Miller points out, that ignores the continuous improvement aspect that aims to actually make the work easier.

“If you’re doing it properly the processes become better for everyone in the system,” Miller says. “It’s not a trade-off where it gets better for one person at the expense of someone else.”

Implemented correctly, Lean processes should have an impact on every part of the chain:

  • It makes the process better for workers because tasks are easier and more straightforward. Often work is more fulfilling for frontline employees tasked with finding solutions to improvement problems.
  • It makes the process better for customers because they get more reliable outcomes.
  • It makes the process better for suppliers because they are able to integrate with it more predictably.

Misconception #2: Lean means improving quality or productivity

Tied into the first misconception is the idea that to improve quality, you have to tell people to pay closer attention. If you want to improve productivity, you have to tell people to work faster. In addition to ignoring workers’ needs, this sets up an equation were quality and productivity are at odds with one another.

“Lean is not about balancing quality and productivity,” Miller says. “It’s about improving both simultaneously by removing waste out of the process.”

Ultimately, Lean processes should improve both quality and productivity by removing extraneous hurdles.

Misconception #3: Just-in-time is about waiting until just when something is needed

One misconception Miller commonly encounters in the classroom is around the true definition of “just-in-time.” You might well imagine how a typical student could interpret this term. They come running into class five minutes late, tired and sweaty and holding out a crumpled piece of paper in their hand. “They say ‘I got it done, and I did it Lean because it’s just in time,’” Miller recounts.

But just in time doesn’t mean last minute. In fact, Miller point outs, “When you rush through to get it done quality decreases and productivity decreases because you have to do rework. And often you don’t make it in time.”

Just in time is actually about doing a task once all the tools, materials, and a request from the customer are in place. With the appropriate flexibility in your schedule you should be able to get started right away to do a methodical, high quality job. “I like to reframe that concept as just-as-soon,” Miller says.

Get to know the Lean philosophy

Miller points out that an organization focusing on Lean tools will miss many of the main benefits of Lean.

“I don’t see Lean as something where you take a list of tools and you roll it out to other people,” Miller says. “It has to become personal for you.”

He encourages Lean practitioners to make a practice of taking Lean ideas and applying them at work and home. Over time, they’ll better understand how the tools fit together and can be applied in different settings. Perhaps the most important concept to remember is that Lean is about continually improving. If you think you know all there is to know about Lean, think again.

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