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The Most Important Step in Lean

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The greatest barrier to eliminating waste isn’t the lack of a solution — it’s the failure to recognize the waste in the first place.

Learning to see waste is the most critical, and often most challenging, step in adopting Lean processes. It’s easy to become used to doing a task a certain way. It’s much harder to deconstruct that task to identify elements of wasted time, material or energy. So it’s time to take a page out of Henry Ford’s book. Ford would offer two tips for identifying waste:

  • Don’t take any job for granted.
  • Pay close attention to the manner in which a job uses time, material, and energy.

Most importantly, don’t leave these tasks up to the Lean manager alone. By teaching your entire workforce to identify waste, you can dig more deeply into process efficiencies.

Know your wastes

You’re not going to reduce waste if you don’t know what to look for. Taiichi Ohnos identified 7 types of waste as part of the Toyota Production System:

  1. Defects
  2. Overproduction
  3. Waiting
  4. Transportation
  5. Inventory
  6. Movement
  7. Processing

The challenge is that many Lean practitioners tend to put their energy into applying tools to tackle problems. However, you have to start with identifying the problems. This isn’t a one-and-done task. As processes are adjusted, new inefficiencies may arise. In addition, individuals who haven’t fully committed to Lean are liable to backslide to more wasteful methodologies.

Keep these forms of waste forefront in yours and your employees’ minds. Posters, signage and frequent discussions can help achieve this.

Tricks to track waste

If you want to find waste, start by questioning everything. Try using the following tricks to help you in reinvigorate your search for waste.

  1. Map out and act out improvements. Visual stream mapping is a popular strategy for breaking down processes to get to the heart of waste. Matt Adams, founder of Business Analyst Guru, suggests then acting out the mapped process Going through the motions can help catch activities you might gloss over on paper.
  2. Catch it on camera. William A. Levinson, the principal of Levinson Productivity Systems, suggests videotaping a task to evaluate the job design. Get your workers in on this task, so they understand they are not the subject of the evaluation. Consider having workers mark segments of the job videos in green, yellow and red to indicate which tasks are value-adding, value-assisting and non-value-adding.
  3. Capture all opportunities. Continuous improvement software allows anyone to identify an opportunity for improvement. When these opportunities live in a central online system, managers can more easily prioritize them and track their progress.
  4. Empower workers to make decisions. Waiting on management to offer solutions, inspect or sign off on basic tasks is time wasted. For example, Andrew Quibell, Global Head of Quality Assurance of CIMPRESS, writes that inspection isn’t where waste gets caught and eliminated. In fact, “the more we rely on human dependability in Inspection, the more defects are likely to slip through the cracks.” By automating or putting processes in place to check for quality control, time spent waiting can become time spent working.

Unlike many workplaces, a Lean-based company aims to build a team that questions every step of every process. After all, it’s only by looking for problems that you can hope to develop improvements.

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