Featured Article – 2007 May

Think Lean to Eliminate Waste

Think Lean to Eliminate Waste
by Millard D. Brown II

Millard D. Brown II is a managing director of Beane Associates, Inc. Based in Atlanta, he has more than 30 years of experience developing and implementing crisis and change management for both public and private companies. Before joining Beane Associates, he was an executive with GE and Hercules, Inc.

How do businesses run into trouble? It often boils down to one word: waste.

How can businesses get out of trouble? Eliminate waste.

Solving the problem, unfortunately, isn’t quite as easy as identifying it, but there are some basic principles that can point almost any business in the right direction.

And those principles can be boiled down into two words: Lean thinking.

It all comes down to this: No matter what the business, every system, whether it’s manufacturing, transportation, purchasing, human resources or accounting, consists of a series of procedures. And virtually every set of procedures can be streamlined. Lean thinking is all about getting rid of unnecessary steps and motions, getting rid of any piece of the process that does not add value to the final product. It’s about making what you need, when you need it, rather than stockpiling huge inventories that take up valuable space and might not ever be sold.

Lean thinking is not an exciting exercise. Rather, it’s a bit like organizing your closet.

You’re getting rid of the things you don’t need and making sure everything that remains is in its proper, well-identified location. There’s nothing exciting about that – but you’ll be pleased when you can find what you’re looking for in 30 seconds or less.

It’s the same at work. As an executive, you don’t want to handle a paper more than once – and you don’t want your accountants or HR managers to do so either. Nor do you want the workers on the assembly line or the packing clerks in your distribution center to handle the same part twice. Nor do you want your administrative assistants to print out and distribute dozens of copies of reports and meeting minutes when you know quite well that hardly anybody is going to read them.

The recognized experts on the subject are James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones, whose book “Lean Thinking” shows how Toyota moved to the top of the automotive world by transforming its processes from mass production to lean production.

Womack and Jones summarize lean thinking in five principles: “precisely specify value by specific product; identify the value stream for each product; make value flow without interruptions; let the customer pull value from the producer; and pursue perfection.

There’s far too much in “Lean Thinking” — both case studies and explanations of principles — to summarize in this space, and the book belongs on the must-read list of any manager who cares about reducing waste and getting the most out of a company’s employees, equipment and raw materials.

Getting started on the lean process can be a bit daunting because it often means throwing out systems that have been in place for years, systems that have given everyone on the team a real comfort level — whether they’re working or not.

But thinking lean can also be liberating, because it invites everyone to carefully examine existing processes and think creatively about how to improve them.

Managers seeking to improve their businesses through increased efficiency may realize they cannot achieve all of their objectives at once. If that’s the case, don’t delay change; rather, select the steps that are most important to you and start with them.

Once you get started, you’ll keep on working on ways to get better — for you’ll be following the fifth principle of lean thinking: “pursue perfection.”

In your pursuit of perfection, here’s a great thought to keep in mind: No matter how many times you improve an activity to make it leaner, you can always find more ways to eliminate effort, time, space and errors — more ways to eliminate waste.

To learn more, visit www.lean.org. Write to me at mdbrown@beaneassociates.com