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Continuous Improvement in Lean

Published By Amber Estabrooks

Continuous improvement is one of the pillars of a Lean environment. It sounds pretty lofty, doesn’t it? “I work for a company that’s always evolving,” is a great blurb for LinkedIn, but what does that even look like? How is a company sure that they’re practicing continuous improvement in Lean ways? This article will discuss two techniques that you can use to build the right mindset across your organization for continuous improvement in Lean.

Eliminate Non-Value Adding Activities

To begin continuous improvement in Lean, taking a critical look at the current state of your company is a necessity.  Identifying areas of waste that can be eliminated is a good first step. Look for opportunities where you could make better use of your employees’ experience, talents, and skills to produce better results for your customer.

But “identifying areas of waste” sounds scary — it makes people nervous to even begin. At one point in time, Lean got a bad reputation for cutting jobs, as the principles were oversimplified, misunderstood, and misapplied. When told that the company is “identifying areas of waste”, people may ask themselves:

“Does this mean that we’re going to lose our jobs?”

“What if cutting this activity has an unforeseen impact on us down the road?”

These are great questions; they can be answered by focusing on your main objective. In The Goal (one of my personal favorite books about applying Lean principles), Eliyahu Goldratt’s protagonist discovered that his company’s goal was to make money. This tends to be pretty common, wouldn’t you say? We don’t want to cause people to lose their jobs — we want them to work more efficiently in a way that allows your business to meet its goals. We want their jobs to grow — and to create more jobs for other talented people like them. Identifying areas of waste is how we can do that; it’s how we practice continuous improvement in Lean.

Define Waste

How do you know if an activity is considered waste? Planview AgilePlace co-CEO, Jon Terry, defines the idea like this: “If a customer sees something as a line item and they would not want to pay it, it’s waste.” Some of these activities are unavoidable. For example, sending emails to a potential client is something that a reasonable customer would not want to pay to have happen, but must continue. The challenge when implementing continuous improvement in Lean becomes sorting out what waste can be cut and what can only be minimized. Here are a few examples of waste that could have easily been overlooked, from Planview AgilePlace:

  1. A plague of development-style work is the fact that folks become siloed into particular subsets of knowledge. There’s just too much to know for any one person to be able to do it all. The problem with this is the fact that to finish any piece of work, more than one person needs to be involved. Each time someone else gets pulled into a project, he or she has to leave the work that is currently on deck. Nathan Perry, a software developer for us at Planview AgilePlace put this a great way: “Until you release code into production, you have no idea if it actually solves the business problem it was created for. Businesses don’t stand still, so you’re also trying to hit a moving target. The feature or code you are developing today is most likely solving yesterday’s problem. So each context switch puts you further behind.”

So how is this waste? Work can possibly never get completed. By the time each person can get pulled in and complete their section of expertise, the business need may have evolved to a different issue. Thus, the work is never completed and the time spent on the original issue is lost time: waste.

  1. Related to the first issue is the idea of non-utilized talent. This can appear in a few ways. As people get siloed into the type of work that they’re naturally gifted at doing, they may miss opportunities to grow. Equally complicated is the idea of someone that has a skill set that the company just doesn’t have time to put into practice. This is a tricky area of waste, because it feels less threatening than, say, a huge defect that needed to be reworked. But it still presents an opportunity to apply continuous improvement in Lean ways — like by developing those skills during slack time.

However, just because repercussions are hard to analyze, doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. For example, perhaps your company hires a new person but that skill set already existed in a current employee. Perhaps this skill could be nurtured during times of constructive slack. This tends to be a resource-intensive process, but what’s gained for your company? A lower impact to your operating costs and a more loyal employee — plus, as you grow, it’s likely that you’ll need more people with that skill set. A lower impact to your operating costs plus a more loyal employee. That is just one way continuous improvement in Lean promotes sustainable growth.

People enjoy feeling that their employer cares enough about their future that time and resources are invested into helping them blossom into a better employee. Diana O’Brien of Deloitte Consulting LLP stated, “If we didn’t invest in the development of our professionals, it would be akin to a manufacturer not upgrading equipment, yet still expecting improved productivity.” Develop your own talent to improve the collective value of your organization — your customers will thank you.

Develop Your Own Kata

I first learned of the idea of katas when my children started learning TaeKwondo. They would work hard to learn the exact placement of their hands, their feet, when they kick, when they punch. Watching a well-rehearsed kata can be quite breathtaking. Everyone moves in unison from one movement to the next. Katas are patterns that anyone with discipline can learn. They are the same every time they are performed.

Mike Rother wrote a book, Toyota Kata, that revolutionized the way I think about continuous improvement. He discusses the idea that the reason that Toyota has been leading the way in Lean is not just the visible aspects they do but the pattern (kata) of problem solving that they use. It boils down to setting targets and moving toward them everyday. Obstacles will arise, sure, but these obstacles turn into opportunities to improve.

Implementing a kata of continuous improvement in Lean is not difficult, but it requires discipline. It requires a mindset that growth is not optional. Each person sets objectives for how they can improve, then works fiercely towards those goals. Any bumps in the road are discussed not in the context of insurmountable mountains but occasions to shine when the answer is discovered. This makes an environment that breeds improvement — not for the sake of improvement, but for genuine ingenuity.

Continuous Improvement in Lean

My first manager at Planview AgilePlace taught me not to say “Best Practices” anymore, because we’ll never truly know the best way to do anything. Everything is open for improvement if we are open to the idea of making changes. Frankly, fear of beginning can oftentimes lead to being frozen in time, unable to compete with the more disruptive companies that are practicing Lean continuous improvement.

As Shigeo Shingo said, “The most dangerous kind of waste is the waste we do not recognize.” Use these techniques to guide your implementation of continuous improvement in Lean. Eliminate the wastes that might be keeping your organization from reaching its full potential.

Recommended Reading

To learn more about continuous improvement in Lean, we recommend consulting these resources:

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Written by Amber Estabrooks

Amber enjoys sharing her value of lifelong learning with others, and helping teams become more Lean. Connect with Amber on LinkedIn.