Lean on the Little Mouse

As a Shingo Prize recipient, we often host Lean benchmarking tours. These tours are always a good opportunity to showcase what we do and exchange some great ideas with our visitors. Recently we had a participant share what he expected to see during the introductory gathering before hitting the manufacturing floor. He stated, “I can’t wait to see your shop with all the areas lined, color codes everywhere and charts showing the progress.”

My response was, “You’re going to be disappointed!” Then we went out on the floor.

While there are some charts on the floor showing training status for the employees, a few signal lights indicating status, and some communication boards/monitors, our shop is not the typical “picture” of Lean. Although the shop is clean and orderly, that precisely change and sharply organized floor does not exist. Early on we attempted to have the picture perfect “Lean manufacturing environment,” but there were traps in the presentation. In some ways, it took more time and large amounts of labor to maintain the facade. Lean is not about what it looks like, but more about how you do things. It’s an attitude or a culture. Simply prettying up the shop is not lean, at least not by itself.

The trick is to makes improvements that drive out waste, be it time, material, staging, process steps, etc. We have a mascot named Tim Wood. Everyone knows the acronym for the 7 deadly wastes. Tim is a mannequin that travels around the shop recognizing improvements. Rarely do our improvements change the “appearance” of the shop, but most often they demonstrate a reduction in waste such as a process that causes additional labor, the physical distance a paperwork trail travels, not having the tools you need when you need them, a set-up piece rack to hold parts commonly used, or a better rack or cart to present material the way we need it. Some of our best Lean projects are invisible on the shop floor, but they shaved hours or even days off of our process time and eliminated potential for errors in customer documentation.

In my experience with Lean and going to seminars and conferences along the way, the common element in every presentation where failure is discussed is how to maintain Lean. The same story repeats each and every time. It starts with a timeline where everyone gets all pumped up and lays down lines, puts up lights and charts, trains their employees, and for 12 to 18 months they see great improvement, typically around better organization and knocking down the obvious piles of waste. Then after a huge adrenaline rush and patting each other on the back, they take a deep breath and it peters out. Then the stubborn teams try again and repeat the same process with similar results and again, it peters out. I’ve seen very few places actually maintain change to lean practices.

If you boil down the process to the very basic requirements it comes down to two main themes; How do I reduce waste, of any kind? How do I maintain it or keep it going? There’s no magic trick, there’s no short cut and most importantly, it never ends. The key word is “CONTINUOUS”. Lean is not a project, it’s not short term and once you get into it for real, there are rarely any single BIG wins.

I once had a landscaper do work for me at my home. He spoke broken English and was describing how he was going to get my yard completed, specifically where it came to getting permits and approvals from town inspectors. Although I am not at liberty to say why he told me the technique (not strictly by the rules), but he said when you deal with town officials you have to be “the little mouse”. A tiny mouse can cause great damage a small bite at a time. The little mouse can get approval on permits by taking small bites until you get what you need approved, and the little mouse is at work when you truly Lean Out your processes. Small, continuous, never ending improvements add up to big results. No single improvement has to save the world, but many smaller, achievable improvements over time build the culture of improvement. Keeping it going takes diligence and a singular direction from everyone on your team. This is very, very difficult to achieve without a mindset that small is great at all levels of the organization. Tim Wood, our mascot, recognizes every improvement, whether it saves an hour of labor, a piece of paper or one dissatisfied customer.

Working in a job shop environment where everything changes by the day with different materials, lot sizes, customer expectations, space demands and work flows, making it tough to delineate an area to park a cart when the next job won’t fit. A job shop by nature makes some Lean efforts very difficult. However, we can attack the process from quote and sales order all the way to putting a job on the truck for delivery, and seek out waste. Ask yourself, “Why did I have to go around the bench to get the paperwork? Why can’t I receive the material immediately off the truck? Why do we enter this information twice for quality and finance? Why is the material storage rack on the other side of the shop? Why aren’t all the bolts for a wheel change the same size?” These are examples of real changes that resulted in minutes of savings or improvement, that ONLY save a little bit on any single improvement and despite our own people asking, “Was it really worth it?”, it all adds up. This is what Lean is, and none of those improvements changed the appearance of the shop, or laid down colored lines on the floor, or required a chart on the wall.

Our Lean culture is defined as continuously looking for waste anywhere, any size, any type, and finding a way to eliminate it. The little mouse just keeps on taking small bites.

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