We write a lot on our blog about business process and process improvement. Up until now, we’ve mostly looked at the benefits of reviewing your processes, and how you might go about setting up an improvement project. All that’s useful, but in order to make your process review project a success, you need a clear approach to improvement. In manufacturing and distribution, a common and effective approach to process improvement is the lean manufacturing (or lean process) model. We’ll explore the concept, and how to go about embedding it in your organisation, in this post. First thing’s first…
What is lean process?
If you work in the manufacturing or distribution industry, you’re likely well-versed in lean process or lean manufacturing. For those who are new to this (and even those who aren’t), let’s just have a quick recap on lean process.
The idea of lean process is to reduce waste in the production process without compromising on productivity. In essence, lean manufacturing promotes things that add value to process, and reduces things that don’t. It has its roots solidly in the Toyota Production System (TPS), developed by Toyota between 1948 and 1975, and it was also known as “just-in-time production”. In fact, it’s often still referred to in this way, particularly in the automotive sector.
That’s enough of the history lesson. How do you embed and optimise lean process in your organisation?
Lean process improvement in your organisation
The first thing to note and key thing to remember with lean process is that nothing’s going to happen overnight. It’s not a switch you can flick over and bam – you’re doing lean manufacturing. It’s not even a project you can realistically see the end of, because it’s a philosophy, a mindset, rather than an “event”. If you’re looking to complete a general business process improvement project, you can find out how to do that here.
Truly embedding lean process is about taking the whole business on the journey, putting best practices in place and the streamlining individual processes through a lean lens. So in a sense, you might say that lean process improvement is a series of individual projects leading to a greater outcome. Thinking about it like a continual journey will allow you to be more agile, scale the process within your business and weave the lean philosophy into the fabric of your business.
One of the specific methodologies associated with lean process is continuous improvement, with one particularly effective approach known as kaizen (in Japanese, “kai” means “change” and “zen” means “good”). This approach utilises three core principles of continuous improvement to embed the philosophy into the business: feedback (or self reflection), efficiency and evolution.
In this methodology, all improvement ideas come from the workers, the implication being that the changes are likely to be less radical, making them easier to implement. As they are more directly involved in changes to core business processes, workers are also more satisfied and their work feels more impactful and their place within the organisation clear and justified.
Being a lean process approach, that’s exactly what kaizen does – makes you more lean. The way you structure your business and core processes through this lens will ensure both inventory and resource are used more efficiently. It’s all about eliminating overproduction, improving quality, having less idle time and reducing unnecessary activities. Also, looking at processes from a solutions perspective, rather than a problematic one, helps your organisation become more agile and be better at solving problems when they arise.
Kaizen emphasises making small, continual steps rather than “giant leaps”, reducing the need for significant spend and allowing you to gradually make changes and improvements without disrupting process and productivity. Hence “continual” improvement.
If you’d like to find out more about kaizen, there is a really comprehensive and helpful resource here.
Any kind of process improvement is all about the outcomes. The goals of the exercise, and the desired outcomes, should be front of mind at all times, and you should ensure you put mechanisms in place that will allow you to easily and effectively measure these. The thing driving lean process improvement is reducing waste, but the overall desired outcome is to maximise customer value without having to increase spending or resource. Providing the most value possible to the customer should be the end game here, but it’s also important to measure the effect that your efforts have had on lead times, cash tied up in stock and overall profitability. And wouldn’t you know it – the right ERP system is a great way to have a toolset that allows you to measure and monitor these things and make continual improvements based on your observations.
We hope this has been a useful primer on lean process and how to apply it to your organisation and business process improvement. If you would like any more advice on, or assistance with process improvement, just get in touch.