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Organizations such as hospitals, governments, educators, service providers, printers, event planners, and insurance companies ask. “How can Lean apply to my company?. I don’t make cars like Toyota.” But implementing Lean in these organizations provides value to the organization, its leaders, its employees, and its customers just as much as it applies value to manufacturing companies.

Differences in Organizations

It is true that these organizations do not have a production line producing a specified product or set of products. In fact, they can all list ways in which they are different. Consider a hospital, for example. Even if patients have the same illness as another patient, they present with their unique set of signs and symptoms. In the case of a printer, jobs may be similar but the layout, stock, and ink, as well as the specifications, are unique. For the event planner, every festival, celebration, or fundraiser has its own requirements and challenges. However, they all follow a process and each industry has process problems. The same Lean principles can apply. There may be adjustments to fit the industry, but the Lean tools can be used and the management processes implemented.

Value to Businesses

With the implementation of Lean processes and Lean management, these businesses can eliminate errors, rework or “do-overs”, reduce processing time, improve customer response time, workflow, and quality. When scheduled maintenance and quality assurance steps are taken, then quality and productivity actually improve and waste is reduced. When processes, or what is referred to as standard work documents are established, then you can identify areas of improvement and celebrate when target conditions are achieved.

Real World Examples

As an example, I can reference several cases of hospitals that have implemented Lean in testing areas and emergency rooms. The result has been improved patient care and satisfaction, as well as waste reduction. In the case of the ER, the staff was able to reduce the time to triage the arriving patients and to have the needed supplies at the right place. In the case of the testing area, waiting time and paperwork was reduced and both staff and customer satisfaction improved. There are so many examples of success in these industries. Government offices reduced cost and paperwork while improving citizen approval ratings. Printers reduced many costs, including waste and inventory while improving workflow. The result for them was increased business and growing profits.

The Challenges Along the Journey

But these successes were not without their challenges. The easiest part of getting started with Lean is learning the processes and how to complete the forms. The greatest challenge lies in creating and sustaining a Lean culture. The entire executive suite must be committed to LEAN and developing and sustaining a Lean culture. It takes commitment and discipline on the part of management, especially the middle management to stick to the lean processes. It requires bottom-up and top-down perspectives to have both the big picture and the details. It takes more than a superficial look to identify the areas in the end-to-end workflow that are not a value for which the customer is willing to pay.

It is so easy to fall back to old habits and to jump in and fight fires when something isn’t working. Old habits die hard, and like a phoenix, they rise again from the ashes. It takes discipline to follow the processes required to locate the source of the problem and fix it. It also takes discipline for them to create and follow the leader standard work guidelines. Visual controls and daily accountability help to extinguish old habits and instill new ones.

Visual controls are reminders and flags when the process is not followed. My doctor has his office at Johns Hopkins Hospital. On my last visit, I noticed visual checklists for some patient interactions. One of those was hand-washing before touching a patient. The hospital was conducting a project to reduce infections in the hospital. Their standard of work included this simple process. They were pleased with the improvement and posted charts in their areas regarding the improvement as a result of the campaign. The procedure is a part of everyone’s standard work at the hospital.

My partner John and I were recently working at a technology company to develop sales and customer materials. We were located next to the customer service hotline area. I noticed large screens displaying the status of the calls. The manager was pleased to show us how the calls were tracked and how often they were quickly and satisfactorily completed. He also explained the disciplines and processes they used to help them get to the source of the problem. Adhering to the processes for resolution allowed them to not only satisfy the customer issue but also notify engineering or field service to eliminate future issues. Disciplines, standards of work, and visual controls allow employees to work with pride and know they are providing quality products and services.

Resistance to Change

It takes effort to overcome resistance and reach the target conditions in these organizations. Much of the work done in an enterprise today is done on the computer or in a cubicle at a desk. It is difficult to observe the workflow and to time each activity. Also, many companies have sketchy guidelines and employees have developed their own way of doing things. Therefore, employees tend to resist accountability, standards of work, and the associated Lean paperwork. They often feel they are being micromanaged.

To overcome the resistance to change, management must demonstrate that the goal is to map the value stream and make the employee’s job easier. Executives and managers need to assure employees that they are not out to eliminate their job but rather to determine the challenges they face and the training they need. Lean can alleviate many of the problems that frustrate the employees every day. When they see that management takes action and eliminates these obstacles, job satisfaction improves, employees actively participate in problem resolution, and company goals are achieved.

Planning for Success

Because business processes exist in environments with cross-functional teams and may involve competing teams or projects, it is important to plan and implement parallel Lean processes and Lean management initiatives with executive governance and ultimate accountability. Senior management must establish the company vision and goals for the outcome of a Lean implementation. They also need to understand the value of executive Lean activities and how to be an active participant. Gemba walks and executive engagement will be a topic for another blog post. For now, it suffices to say that they must be engaged.

Many of the companies I have worked with have complex organizational structures and very different products or services, but the gains in productivity, performance, and satisfaction of employees and customers make Lean implementation worth the investment of time and effort. In summary, Lean is not just for manufacturing but for organizations of all types and structures.

Is Lean valuable to your organization? I challenge you to take a walk around your company. Ask people about their challenges and frustrations. Observe the activities and look for some of the following areas of opportunity: excess inventory, people traveling back and forth, back and forth to complete a task, out of stock conditions, clutter, unplanned downtime, safety risks, uneven workflow, volume of customer returns or level of customer care calls, and lack of organization of tools and supplies. Also, take note of the employee attitude and involvement in quality improvement. At this point, we are not identifying the vital few with which you would begin implementing Lean processes and management. We are just looking to determine, it is worth the effort to take the next step in the Lean journey. Once you make your list, sit back have a cup of coffee or tea and consider the value of process improvements and the transformation to a Lean culture. I’m sure you’ll agree, your organization can benefit from Lean.

Note: Resources for getting started with LEAN:

Liker, Jeffery K, (2004). The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Mann, David, (2010). Creating A Lean Culture: Tools to Sustain Lean Conversions (3rd Edition), Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Rother, Mike, (2010). Toyota KATA: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results. New York: McGraw-Hill

How Can Lean Help My Organization? We Are Not a Manufacturer