The Top 5 Ways To Implement & Improve Lean Efforts in the Workplace

Since you’re reading this, you probably have some notion, however small, as to what lean strategies are, but you might be struggling with implementing them into your workplace for the first time. For others, you might be seeking a lean-based solution to a specific problem you’re noticing in your place of work. Whatever your case, I’ve compiled a list below of some of the most effective lean strategies for common workplace struggles. For each listing, I’ve started with a frequent problem you might be facing or faced with in the future, and then given suggestions for solution systems based in lean ideology. I hope you find the answer you’re looking for!

1. “Organization of my workplace or materials is making it difficult to achieve maximum efficiency.”

Many businesses find themselves falling quickly “behind the eight ball” when the need to keep a work floor running in order to meet demand is at odds with the reality that the reorganization of said work floor could make the business vastly more efficient in the long term. A classic example is the layout of a production factory. Many factories have been around for decades, and have the usual linear layout in which an item is passed from one stage to another; it enters the assembly process at one end of a warehouse and leaves out of another. As you may have realized, this can become highly inefficient when an item needs to go back to an earlier phase, or when the end of the assembly line isn’t where you actually package or load products anymore. What you get is a lot of wasted time, effort, and risk of safety as workers have to transport goods unnecessarily.

The lean solution to this problem was developed as early as over half a century ago by Toyota, and involves creating a U-shaped assembly line in which products begin and finish near each other (the ends of the U). In this way, moving between processes is easy and walking/transporting is minimized. Even if a product is defective or needs to be completely re-run through a process, the spot it needs to start in is right next to the one it ended at.

In other cases, general organization might be causing you problems. Using clear labeling systems, floor tape to outline areas, and similar systems can help to make sure that products, pallets, materials, tools, packaging, and any other objects cluttering your workspace are removed. Clearing up a space not only makes it more efficient, but safer for workers as well.

2. “Organizational Projects Are Too Large of an Interruption to Workflow”

Whether you’re just clearing out a storage closet or re-arranging your entire assembly line, it usually just isn’t going to be practical to lose days of work (or even hours, if it can be avoided). As touched on in the last section, however, you don’t want to be sacrificing your long term potential for fear of short term setbacks. So what can you do? Lean ideology offers up ways to break down and organize individual projects to make them more efficient.

One of the most common ways to do this is through the 5S’, which are Sort, Set in order, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain. When sorting, you’re going to take all of the pieces of your organizational project and put them into bins or piles based on how necessary they are and how often they are used. Then you’re going to set the objects in order, replacing the things you’re keeping or using in logical places that keep them easy to get to and find. Shine is when you clean out your new space completely, dust things down, wash things that need washing, etc. in order to establish a new, clean workplace deserving of staying organized. Standardize means making this kind of organization or system standard to your procedures. Sustain, often thought of as the most difficult of the 5S’, refers to keeping the area organized and easily operable as time goes on.

3. “I’ve got too much waste/inventory!”

A big part of lean ideology revolves around making sure that your business is efficient and not wasteful. Product that sits around in the form of unneeded materials, or that gets made but ends up sitting for months or years in inventory isn’t doing you any favors. While demand may change over time and throughout the year, recording and using data from previous work years to make informed decisions about when you’ll need more product can help you stay more efficient and proactive. Especially when compared to if you just kept levels relatively flat throughout the year and responded to changing conditions after the fact.

One system that makes responsive/reactionary operations OK, however, is Kanban. Kanban basically attaches cards to the different areas of production in your business; usually this is represented on a board/diagram, but real tags on products or stations can be used as well. The idea is that no card is moved until there is a “pull” from another part of the line. For example, products don’t get made until they’re ordered, and products that are made in multiple stages only move onto a stage when the preceding station is finished. In this way, no materials are ordered or products made without direct demand – this can be thought of as ‘one in, one out.’

4. “I feel disconnected or that I’m falling behind with day to day operations.”

As a manager, and especially as an owner, it’s your job to know intimately the goings on of your business. This includes overseeing day to day operations and keeping abreast of worker concerns and needs. When you feel distant from your employees or their work, it can be a frightening reminded that sometimes management made completely from behind a desk just isn’t that effective. The lean “Gemba walk” offers some insight. Gemba walks are used to address a variety of workplace issues, but their primary teaching is that you need to get in on the ground floor and, almost literally, walk a day in your employees’ shoes. Consider taking time out each week or each day to walk through ground level operations and talk with workers. You’ll not only get a better grasp on challenges and what is or isn’t working in your business, you’ll also get a chance to build strong relationships and rapport with your employees.

5. “Things feel stagnant, or I find myself wondering ‘What next?'”

Lean is a primarily a culture and ideology of continuous improvement, so when things feel like they’re staying the same or at a constant, give your self a pat on the back, but don’t be content to rest on your laurels. Lean teachings tell us that nothing is ever perfect, and we should always work to improve upon it. That said, sometimes this can pigeon hole us into not seeing the bigger picture as we focus on one particular aspect in “need” of improvement. Feel free to break the mould:

“While many companies practice a formal version of a Lean…other companies enjoy the flexibility of continuous improvement as a practice while reserving the right to deviate from the practice whenever a less formal approach is needed.” –  LeanKit  

Just like with continuous improvement, the rigidity of or extent to which you follow lean principles will have to be an organizational choice that best fits your business. While these lean techniques can safely be called “time proven” now, always feel free to continuously improve on the practices themselves, even on, well, continuous improvement.

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