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The Power of Lean Part II: Continuous Improvement at All Levels


As a business philosophy, Lean (defined in Part 1 of this series) seeks to create a business environment that is heavily focused on problem identification and problem solving. Whereas traditional business environments tend to be directive in nature — with instructions and policies cascading down from upper levels of management in a one-way flow — a Lean culture encourages frontline workers to identify problems and develop ideas for improvement, while managers facilitate and support frontline workers in successfully developing and implementing solutions.

Indeed, this unique feature of Lean separates it from traditional process improvement and reengineering projects of years gone by. Lean is synonymous with the spirit of continuous improvement, whereby staff and managers continuously assess processes and strive to find ways to make things work better. The Lean mindset is one of "we're never quite finished" and embraces performance issues and process breakdowns as opportunities for improvement, rather than as failures.

As we've all experienced, projects come and go that are designed to achieve big leaps in productivity, such as implementing new technology or even "leaning out" a process. While these types of projects can certainly have a positive impact, the risk is that the benefits gained will diminish as the energy of the project subsides and "business as usual" takes over. Again, this is where the Lean mindset kicks in to replace "business as usual" with continuous improvement.

A strong belief in continuous improvement will provide staff and managers the opportunity to take the results of an improvement project and ask, "So how can we make this even better?" The expectation is that processes and systems, even after targeted improvement work is carried out, will not be perfect and that room always exists to fine tune and improve them. Indeed, the idea of continuous improvement is valid even in the absence of project work, as all of our daily work can benefit from continuous, incremental improvement.

In a Lean environment, staff and managers are expected to be as focused on continuously improving their processes as they are on doing their day-to-day work. This is in sharp contrast to most organizations, where in the absence of a 'big project' there is precious little in the way of ongoing improvement work. There may be chatter around the water cooler about issues, challenges and even the occasional idea for improvement, but this is where most of our current improvement work stays as there is no mechanism to turn an idea into an implemented, benefit-generating solution. Lean, however, provides a clear path from idea to implementation and then back to an even better idea and more implementation, and so on.

Keep an eye out for Part 3 of this blog series, where we'll explore the Lean concept of flow and how it can help you achieve value delivery and reduce waste.