Lean in a team – spread the word (but not too fast)

A trivial, but not so simple, task like unloading a dishwasher is a typical example of a manufacturing task as it exists sometimes hundreds of times in manufacturing plant. The best person to improve day-to-day operation is – you are guessing it – the worker and it’s team.

As with the dishwasher example, no station in a manufacturing environment exist in isolation. Unloading the dishwasher is preceded by the loading task and followed by setting the table, which might be performed by other people such as your family. Here, a certain way that makes loading the dishwasher very easy, might be detrimental for unloading it. Similarly, a storage location that has been optimal for unloading the dishwasher might make setting the table harder.

In order to avoid frustration, your co-workers need therefore to be integrated into the optimization process. Sometimes, they will not be able to adjust how they do things for other reasons, requiring everyone to find a solution together. For example, the dishwasher problem might be optimally solved using a mobile storage container, which can be used across all tasks from cleaning the table, to loading and unloading the dishwasher.

There are two main insights we are getting from this:

  1. In order to be successful in implementing lean, all employees need to understand basic lean principles, how ways they do things affect others down the line, and what the overall goal is.
  2. Becoming lean cannot be done over night, but is optimally done in small, incremental steps. As interdependences in a complex sequence of processes are impossible to predict, doing too many steps at once can do more damage than good.

There are multiple steps you can take. In addition to inviting your co-workers to take this online course, there exist also a large variety of “lean games” that can be played in a team, such as brainstorming about the dishwasher example (everyone has one) or folding paper airplanes and comparing different approaches to organizing your line.

Doing things together and thinking about how a decision influences others is tightly related to move in small steps. The Japanese use the word “kata” for this, which is originally used to describe small basic steps in Karate. The “kata” approach has been synthesized in the book “Toyota kata” by Mike Rother. In particular, Rother proposes that it is not solutions themselves that provide companies with a long term advantage, but the degree to which an organization has mastered an effective routine for developing fitting solutions again and again, along unpredictable paths. This requires teaching the skills behind finding a solution throughout your organization, rather than forcing one-time solutions.