Viewpoints: Moving Beyond 'Event Lean'
By Jamie Flinchbaugh
Lean Learning Center
Over the past 10 years I have visited many companies to observe and provide consultation on their strategies for lean transformation. Unfortunately, at least half of the companies have an inadequate approach to lean, implementing what we refer to as "event lean." Train people in lean, begin some 5S application, hold some kaizen events. This strategy can often yield early results, but fails to sustain lean each and every time. Events do not make you lean.
Yes, event lean can be quite successful, especially early in a company's lean journey. Because it is distinctly different from the status quo, event lean creates a significant amount of visibility into the actions taking place. Structured activities such as kaizen events ensure short-term gains, which are attractive. But genuine, sustainable lean is not built through events. Genuine lean is built into an organization's people, processes, and ways of performing work—everything its people do, touch, or say. This takes time for a company to build, and using events for lean is merely a stop along the path to genuine lean. Too much dependence on events will prevent you from achieving continuous improvement.
Why is event-lean faulty when it actually produces results? The unintended result is you may create a pattern of turning the lean light switch on and off. The event is over, so you turn the lean switch off. When times get tough, you may even leave the switch off for a while. The longer the switch is left off, the harder it is to turn it back on.
Another reason event-lean is an inferior approach is that it only engages some of the employees some of the time. As an example, while I was doing a lean assessment of one company's lean efforts, I discovered that the assembly area had not held a kaizen event in nine months. Kaizen was the dominant form of lean in the company, and they had done a great job at it. Since no kaizen had occurred in such a long time, however, employees in the assembly area were under the impression that the lean efforts had ended.
Lean is like a muscle; the more you use it, the stronger it grows. Conversely, if employees only experience a lean event every few months, they have no chance to strengthen the muscle, and it begins to atrophy. There are three building blocks for a foundation of genuine lean: an explicit lean culture based on lean principles; a solid and dynamic ideas system; and standard work for management.
What is really behind companies that succeed at sustained lean implementation versus those that don't is the level of thinking driven by lean principles and rules. Thinking, or beliefs, is a powerful lever in changing an organization. Thinking drives behaviors. Behaviors drive action. Action drives results. And no tool can fix that. Principles should help guide decision-making. They align people to a common set of ideas.
You do not change people's behaviors through policies or tools. To do this requires two things: the clear articulation of lean principles, and behaviors that associate with them, and the continuous providing of experiences that reinforce those principles.
Another key building block for everyday improvement is an effective idea program. This replaces common suggestion programs. The name change is much more than just a name; it is the essence of how such a system should operate. Suggestions are for someone else; they are for someone other than the originator to try. Ideas should originate from the person performing the work, whether that work is running a machine, designing a system, or closing a sale. That individual is the expert in their specific role, and the expectation is that part of their job is process improvement.
The final area for everyday implementation of lean is the application of standardized work for management. Most managers don't believe their work can be standardized—and in terms of minute activity, it can't be. But, it can be in terms of what should be paid attention to, how, and when. And, most importantly, how to respond when something abnormal is found. Through the application of standard work to management activities, you gain predictable and repeatable results, the ability to share knowledge, and the ability to improve.
True lean, genuine lean, is about going well beyond the tools, the events, the training, and the lingo. It is about fundamentally changing how you run your business—each and every day.
This article was first published in the November 2007 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.