The Lean Question: How Soon Can I Get Started?

Too many moldmakers are still asking,“Is this for me?” when they should be asking, “How soon can I get started?”


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In a 2006 survey of the North American Mold Manufacturing Industry conducted by Plante & Moran, 41 percent of the the respondents said they “know nothing” about lean manufacturing.

While lean is viewed by many as critical for survival, most of the industry is having serious trouble making it work. Too many are still asking the wrong question. Instead of, “Is this for me?” the question should be, “How soon can I get started?”

Moldmakers have long felt that lean applies only to high-volume automotive operations, but that’s simply not true. Every operation has waste—in excess motion, waiting, transportation, defects, processing inefficiencies, overproduction, excess inventory and much more. Lean is relentless in eliminating waste and producing top business performance. And top business performance wins. This article shares suggestions to help you find success in lean.


How Do I Get Started?

Lean is about more than just implementing tools. It’s about a change in culture.

• Develop a thorough understanding.

Immerse yourself in lean. Study the original masters—such as Eiji Toyoda, Taiichi Ohno, Shigeo Shingo and Masaaki Imai. After gaining an understanding of their philosophy, read commentary from current gurus, such as Jim Womack, Art Smalley and Jamie Flinchbaugh. Some good starting points are www.artoflean.com, www.lean.org and www.leanlearningcenter.com. Why read the experts? Each has unique insights into different challenges. A successful program can’t develop until all options are evaluated and the best strategies are determined.

• Recognize both the necessity and the urgency.

The necessity is do or die. The urgency is immediate. Now what? You have to go lean for long-term survival, and you have to start immediately, but how? Find a passionate leader. He or she must be determined to do things better, faster and cheaper in all aspects of the business. According to Flinchbaugh, “The journey is difficult but worth it, and in the moldmaking business, lean will determine who survives and who does not.” A passionate leader is therefore a crucial need.

• Focus first on the needs of the business, and only then on the tools.

A vision for the business must be established before implementing the tools of lean. Vision starts with the answers to these questions:

  • How will we improve customer satisfaction?
  • How will we improve profits?
  • How will we develop people?

“If you solve real business problems related to these three areas [customers, profits and people], you’ll be fine,” Smalley says. “If you just implement tools, you’ll probably struggle.”

• Involve the necessary people.

Lean must take into account all stakeholders—including frontline personnel as well as middle and top management. Skipping anyone could set you on a perilous path toward failure.

One of the hardest challenges for managers is letting go of the “Do as I say” mentality. For lean to work, management must relinquish some control to employees. A way to put managers’ minds at ease in this situation is to have them actively involved in the lean transformation and training of employees. Success at lean requires change, improvement and innovation that touch everyone.

• Provide hands-on leadership, not just support.

“If a lean program, or any other program for that matter, is failing, it is probably not the fault of the tools,” says lean expert Dennis Pawley. “It is failing because of lousy leadership.”

The truth is that nearly every manager goes into lean with the best intentions to stay involved. Then the phone rings, and a customer needs attention. In an instant, good intentions are lost, and it’s back to the firefighting routine.

Distraction is inevitable—making passion for lean all the more important. Remember: lean is not just a business goal; it’s a requirement for survival. Success requires everyone’s attention, including upper management, every day. If top management can’t take a hands-on approach to implementing lean, it will surely fail.


“But I Already Tried Lean, and It Didn’t Work.”

If you are among the 98 percent who have been unsuccessful in implementing lean effectively, it’s not too late. Setbacks happen all the time and can be corrected. Following are five tips for identifying and rectifying some common problems in lean implementation:

1. Review the first five steps.
Spend some time in reflection. Were the steps done properly? Where did it all go wrong? A less-than-perfect first try doesn’t equal failure. Every experience can be a success if you learn from it.

“You can learn from what happened yesterday and what happened five years ago, if you look deeply enough, ask the right questions and, most importantly, take action on what you have learned,” say Pawley and Flinchbaugh in their article, 'The Current State: Progress Starts Here.' “Reflection for the sake of reflection is a waste. Reflection for the sake of better actions and decisions is a hidden force of lean transformation.”

2. Consider your customers.
Remember the first question to ask when establishing a vision: How will we improve customer satisfaction? The objective is not in itself to implement lean; it is to improve your business.

Review what customers are demanding, then implement lean in a way that best serves those needs. What specific areas need improvement? Places to begin looking include quality, leadtime and cost.

3. Focus on the needs of the business.
Examine how you can increase profitability. This will require a focused effort on improvement–the key word being “focused.” Everything can’t be addressed at the same time. Prioritize and start with the biggest opportunity for improved profitability. Areas to consider include quality, low productivity, on-time delivery, inventory and poor workflow.

4. Engage all employees.
Failure of any initiative begins with the failure to adequately consider the people in the equation. A commitment to developing your people is the number-one way lean will succeed. Make sure every business unit, manager and employee has a full understanding of the need to involve all stakeholders. Engage everyone in teamwork, problem solving and other lean exercises. Then employees at all levels will learn to think lean and see waste everywhere.

5. Stand in the Ohno Circle.
The Ohno Circle is a lean problem-solving technique created by Taiichi Ohno, father of the Toyota Production System (TPS). The technique involves standing in a circle drawn on the floor of a facility and observing the activity all around. While in the circle, continuously ask the question, “Why?” If something has been done the same way for the last 20 years, don’t just accept it. Is it really the most efficient way? Is there any waste to eliminate?


Lean Success

In many companies, such analysis isn’t done often enough at any level, especially at the top. There’s always a gap between the current state and the ideal state of operations, which represents an ongoing improvement opportunity. The current state can’t be improved, however, if it isn’t fully understood. In lean, new ideas don’t appear out of the blue; they come from true understanding.