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By David Goebel, Missouri Enterprise Project Manager, SME Silver Certified Lean Practitioner

Over the years, I’ve talked with many manufacturing managers who’ve had bad experiences with Lean. They read books or attend seminars and rush out to the plant floor to get started on a project. They may get some positive initial benefit, however, the overall operation doesn’t improve. They conduct a post-mortem to identify the guilty parties and eventually determine that “Lean just doesn’t work here.”

So, how does Lean work in some facilities and not in others? Could it be that Lean principles work with certain processes better than others? Perhaps all that darned Japanese stuff just doesn’t translate well into English, no matter what version we speak. Actually, none of these hypotheses are correct. The main reason that lean doesn’t work is because most applications are local, not systemic. Would-be practitioners utilize the tools without regard for the overall process. For example, applying the tools to increase the capacity of one process step without considering the ability of the immediate upstream and downstream steps to feed it and to receive work from it may not result in a system-wide improvement. So, how do we increase our chances for success?

When you have an issue with your car you don’t randomly replace parts hoping that you stumble on the right one. You diagnose the problem and then focus on the appropriate area to increase the likelihood of a successful repair. Similarly, we need to assess the overall condition of the process in order to know where to apply the Lean tools. Using Value Stream Mapping, we can create a visual representation of the process providing a high-level view. With an improvement goal in mind, and by gathering performance metrics for each process step, (e.g. cycle time, changeover time, machine reliability, and first pass yield) we can assess the capability of each process step to meet the goal. Where we fall short, we determine what changes are necessary to improve the performance of that particular step. The changes may be achieved using Lean tools. In this way, we can apply the tools at the right place in the process to achieve the desired results.

Practice in applying Lean tools is absolutely necessary in order to gain an understanding of what they can do for your organization. However, you can get the same experience in applying the Lean tools using Value Stream Mapping. This diagnostic tool will increase your chances of achieving systemic, meaningful process improvements that will stick.