10 Questions to Consider Before Starting Lean

Watch on YouTube: https://youtu.be/dOW2TTDasTQ


The quick recommendations people make (like “start with 5S”) assume too much about an organization. Even though 5S can be a good first tool to apply, many organizations would do well to do some ground work prior to picking up lean methodologies. This includes things like developing true teamwork, demonstrating a commitment to employee training and development, or even establishing basic metrics and engineering functions. While a list of questions to evaluate your preparation for “starting lean” doesn’t do justice, here are ten questions to ask yourself to help gauge your readiness.

#1 Do you have top management commitment?

Masaaki Imai makes a valid point in his humorous “three keys to kaizen” joke. You cannot succeed with lean/kaizen if you do not have top management commitment.

You cannot delegate the responsibility to “become lean” to anyone other than top management.

Top management must become the change it wants to see in the organization. Self improvement must come first, and leadership is no exception!

#2 Do you have metrics to measure production performance?

While you don’t have to have advanced metrics or sophisticated software to measure your production system, it is important to be able to measure the current situation of your organization.

Even small companies (that we love!) will do well to be able to measure simple things like:

  • Lead time
  • Productivity (e.g. units per man-hour)
  • Quality (e.g. defects per month)
  • Inventory turns
  • etc.

If you cannot measure your performance (which is actually more common among small organizations than you may think!), you won’t be able to quantitatively demonstrate that lean is making a difference.

This can be especially risky if you need to maintain the buy-in of stakeholders inside or outside of the organization!

#3 Do you have clear and accurate production instruction?

Not sure what we mean by “production instruction?” This is anything like the following:

  • product specifications
  • work methods
  • process parameters
  • scheduling and timing requirements

This is another issue that is easy to take for granted. Many companies struggle basic standardization, which destabilizes the production process.

Production instruction is a manufacturing input. If it is missing or ambiguous, it wreaks havoc on any plan that manufacturing puts together.

So it’s got to be right!

Not addressing this will ruin lean efforts as well. A sophisticated value stream map means nothing if the production system is starting and stopping endlessly due to confusing production instructions.

#4 Do you have adequate design and development support?

Whether or not you have a formal “design and development” process at your organization, you must have adequate support up front to prepare manufacturing requirements.

If your production team is stopping production to engineer the job in real time, or troubleshoot the design, or call the customer to figure out what they actually mean, you’re in for a lot of pain and trouble!

This is all the more the case whenever a product or service has a degree of customization.

#5 Do you have true teamwork?

While many small companies will tell us that they are “like family,” functioning as a team is something different.

Any high performing team will feel like a family. Not all families function as a high-performing team.

True teams hold themselves accountable to each other. They don’t blame, but unite around a common goal. They bring problems to light, and devote practice to areas of weakness.

If you do not already have strong teamwork in your organization, it’s not too late! But you will need to deliberately develop it alongside the use of lean tools.

#6 Do associates fear or mistrust management?

If your answer is “yes,” you’ve got some extra work to do to establish engagement and teamwork.

It may be that management has been historically inconsistent.

Or, it’s sometimes the case that management actions have harmed people in the past.

Or, it may be that you have managers that are inexperienced and therefore lack credibility and influence.

Whatever the case may be, you’ve got to gain the trust of all associates… or at least a critical mass!

#7 Do you have managers who will resist?

You must have the buy-in of every manager, supervisor, and team leader in your organization.

Some people and areas will naturally embrace lean faster or easier than others.

But you want to be strategic and mindful of anyone who will resist—even if it’s in a passive form.

#8 Do you have strong frontline leaders?

You need many frontline leaders, not just a few superhero managers and supervisors.

World-class lean organizations commonly have one team leader for every five associates. This means the organization as a whole has a TON more leaders than the average organization.

If you do not have strong frontline leadership, you will want to develop it as part of your lean implementation efforts.

This may require that you slow down and take a longer term perspective on adopting lean, but it is the only way to make lean stick and setup the organization for long term success.

#9 Have you already set a precedent for teaching and developing people?

If associates already are accustomed to receiving training and coaching regularly on the job, then learning lean will be easier to embrace.

Lean is about developing people who improve processes that produce better products.

If you’ve already got the first part down as a cultural priority within your organization, then you’re a few steps ahead of the competition.

#10 Do you understand that 5S won’t solve quality or change your production flow?

While 5S methodology is very important and very valuable, it is not the full picture!

5S can help quality and flow in minor ways, but it will not alter either in substantial ways.

So please do get started with 5S methodology, but recognize that there is much more work to be done than just that!