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Continuous improvement is an ongoing effort for companies that recognize the value of adopting systems that promote quality production standards. These initiatives are the foundation for developing a strong work culture. To help this mission, corporations worldwide have begun implementing problem-solving and performance-evaluation systems designed to promote lean concepts that continually propel improvement.
The Lean concept describes a process that promotes analysis and creative problem-solving throughout a facility. It shifts an organization’s focus to creating value by shortening production cycles, eliminating waste and emphasizing efficiency. Lean involves identifying what adds value to the manufacturing process and removing what doesn’t.
As this system has grown in popularity, groups dedicated to Lean have created templates designed as useful tools to guide organizations during the transition period. One of the first notable Lean templates to rise in popularity in the United States was the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) template. Companies have since taken this format and adjusted it to fit the unique needs of their facilities.
Building off the PDCA template, Ford Motor Company introduced its Eight Disciplines of Problem-Solving template (8D Problem-Solving), which highlighted:
While this standard held for a period, it became clear that something was missing.
From the PDCA template also came Toyota’s landmark A3 Problem-Solving template. This template was designed for proposals, status updates and problem-solving and includes:
With this template, Toyota realized that a problem isn’t actually a problem but an opportunity to improve. But it’s not the template that launches innovative thinking and progress – it’s what’s missing that provides the “secret ingredient”.
The secret ingredient to the Lean template, regardless of the company, is Lean culture.
Culture encompasses the personality of a company, and it’s integral to the facility’s overall performance. All companies have a company culture; sometimes it is intentional and sometimes it isn’t, and when culture isn’t planned and supported appropriately, it can have detrimental effects. The aim is to have employees align on goals while making each member feel valued for their unique experiences and knowledge. To promote continuous facility improvement, it’s necessary to integrate Lean values into the company culture.
A successful, sustainable Lean program can only be built on the foundation of a positive working environment. This happens by fostering a desire in employees across multiple disciplines to participate in finding solutions to minimize waste and advance productivity. It’s leadership’s responsibility to set the tone with a strategic vision and mission that go beyond words on a website.
While this can require a shift in mindset, when teams work together to brainstorm and offer different perspectives, companies can see a positive change in employee buy-in, collaboration and goal alignment. A Lean culture supports learning and is driven by the desire to constantly do better. At the end of the day, successful lean strategies are culture change.
The templates described offer processes and checkpoints, but they fall short of “building people”. As Fujio Cho of Toyota Motor Corporation put it, “First we build people, then we build cars.” Without a culture, the Lean templates are just an empty form. To go beyond this form, companies must apply the four pillars of Lean culture:
Templates help the team follow a prescribed system, but if you find that they aren’t producing the desired results, it’s time to look at the other factors of a Lean program. While culture is one of the most important concepts, a company must also factor in three other Lean components:
But without a solid Lean culture, none of these other concepts will be appropriately effective. So, how is Lean culture nurtured?
Nurturing Lean culture involves tactfully modifying behaviors and verifying that the entire team understands and appreciates all job roles involved in achieving company goals. Employees at all levels, from the front lines to the C-suite, must also be empowered to voice their opinions, ask questions, share ideas and collaborate with others to solve problems. Successful Lean culture depends upon creating an atmosphere of respect and fostering open, ongoing communication.
To set the stage for culture improvements, employees must also be fully aware of the Lean plan and how these concepts will be used to improve efficiency and problem-solving. In this way, all members, regardless of their department, are on the same page. With this process, it’s crucial to communicate in a way that stays true to Lean culture concepts and sets the tone for the rest of the facility.
Some effective ways to communicate include:
During this time, the company must establish a vision and mission that align with lean concepts and help solidify the tone of its lean culture. This involves effectively communicating how each employee or department is expected to contribute to the process. In this transition, it can be helpful to assign “Culture Champions” to help their peers understand and adjust to the new approach of interdepartmental teamwork and communication.
Now that the stage is set with the appropriate cultural mindset, a company can begin implementing the action steps and templates to fully incorporate Lean operations.
There are two main template styles to choose from when initiating a Lean program: the PDCA and the A3.
The Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) template can help a company break old habits to develop more efficient and effective practices. Because of its unique versatility, this template can be applied in almost every industry and project. PDCA is a continuous process and involves commitment from the top down.
The four key stages of PDCA include:
Plan – Identify and analyze the problem and how to solve it. Ask:
Do - Test the proposed slution with a small-scale project in a controlled environment to understand the expected results. Ask:
Check - Compare results with information gathered in the "Do" stage to evaluate if they align with expectations. Ask:
Act - Implement the plan. Ask:
A3 is rooted in the PDCA cycle and breaks down the process into eight steps. This template can be used for proposals, status updates, problem-solving and more. With a Lean culture and team approach, A3 can guide an organization through the steps to eliminate waste, improve efficiency, address issues, and improve the customer and employee experience.
The eight steps of A3 are:
A key takeaway from successful problem-solving is recognizing that problems are opportunities, and that the process of solving them is always ongoing. By inviting ideas to the table in a respectful, open, and supportive environment, a culture of collaboration can develop.
Just as companies expect their employees to continually grow and evolve, so too must the processes that run the facility. This continual evolution helps companies stay relevant and grow a sustainable organization with a culture grounded in Lean principles. To be successful, organizations need structures and useful tools like Lean templates, in combination with a strong Lean culture to achieve company goals and promote progress to all employees.