Designing Your Own Lean System

Eric Bigelow

Lean systems are great and can make a company prosper. They improve quality, eliminate wasteful activity and increase value to the customer. The problem is that many managers often want to "carbon copy" lean systems. This is why I believe many of the companies who claim they are lean show no long-term improvements.

Toyota (TPS) and Six Sigma are no doubt the most popular lean systems. Their names are (and should be) held in high praise. These are great programs, but they were developed, designed and intended for Toyota and Motorola.

If a manager wants to make his or her company lean, that person should explore and understand many different lean theories, tools and production systems. There is a great deal of lean information out there, and some of the theories and tools blow the dominant two out of the water. A manager who is dedicated to making the lean jump should not implement any previously attempted (successful or not) specific system structure.

After researching and getting a firm grasp of lean and the commitment required to make it successful, I believe a manager should form a system design team. The team should consist of the strongest leaders in the organization. Supervisors, engineers and shop-floor personnel should be strategically chosen for this system development process. Hiring a lean specialist for the duration of the development is a good idea as well.

Initially, the selected team should be introduced to the concepts the manager prefers. After this introduction, they will definitely require material to cover. A list of websites to visit, important definitions, theories and proposed tools should be supplied. A couple of lean books will strengthen their knowledge, too. Team members should have a couple of months to research and discover lean themselves, while the manager should be committed to answering questions and teaching.

The months that follow the initial learning process will not be easy. Lean systems are complex, and the values must permeate into every facet of the company. Lean will engage every individual and will demand changes in the way things were done in the past. Individuals will have disagreements about the processes, procedures and some of the tools you develop. Therefore, it is important that the system is built to allow flexibility because some of the disagreements may be valid. The lean system itself should not be sheltered from change.

The newly designed system will not be void of fault or difficulty. I fear this is the central reason that managers resort to carbon-copying. Designing a blueprint for a system and implementing it takes plenty of hard work and commitment, especially in its beginning stages. It is unquestionably a learning experience, and the system will undergo many changes. As long as the basic lean principles are taught, followed and measured, the lean system will thrive.

Keep in mind that Toyota and Motorola didn’t have a lean system when they started. They had to research, develop and manipulate it to reach their goals. Lean has been proven time and time again. Its concepts and theories work well and are not difficult to grasp.

Lean is not about slogans, catchphrases or colored belts. It’s about creating, imagining, implementing and learning how to reach efficiency goals. No system in the world will be a perfect fit, so create your own organizational lifeblood.

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About the Author

Eric Bigelow is an industrial engineer and continuous improvement professional. He is currently a lean coordinator located in Spirit Lake, Iowa. He has trained numerous individuals in lean manuf...