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Lean Systems Gaining Strength

Writing about the organizational use of Lean necessitates the use of lean principles, since there’s so much to be said about this popular waste reduction and quality improvement system.

What do FBN’s readers most want to know about Lean? (or, what is of value to my customer?) How should I cut out unnecessary words (time) in the writing of the article? How is it possible to write efficiently about such a complicated subject without losing value to our readers (where can I streamline my process without losing quality)? How can I improve the efficiency and quality of my writing each time I undertake a complicated article (how can I strive for Kaizen)?

These are just a few of the questions practitioners of Lean might ask when considering a work process.


History of Lean


Lean, in its most recent form, comes out of Japanese car manufacturing, specifically Toyota in the 1980s, although scholars claim Lean principles date back to Alexander the Great and Benjamin Franklin.

But most recently, during Toyota’s successes in the 1980s, U.S. manufacturing leaders began to ask: “How can Toyota create such high quality cars at such a low price?” They began traveling to Japan, researching Toyota’s processes, and finding ways to translate and implement the principles of what is now referred to as “Lean” to U.S. manufacturing.

Although the Lean system comes out of car manufacturing, many types of organizations now use Lean principles, including state and local governments, non-profits, hospitals, universities and small as well as large businesses. These organizations are using Lean to increase the value of their product or service to their customer – whether that “customer” is a car buyer, hospital patient, recipient of government services or a college student.

Early U.S. Lean leaders translated Japanese Lean principles into a group of key concepts, including identifying kinds of waste (Muda) from the ground level of an organization, and ways to eradicate unreasonableness (Muri) and inconsistency (Mura) within the leadership of an organization.

Lean leaders often refer to the practical techniques they use to improve workplace strategies as their Lean “toolkit.” The toolkit differs somewhat in different Lean lineages, but it includes a series of ways to map processes, identify problems, solve problems and strive for continuous daily improvement. The principle of continuous daily improvement is referred to within Lean as “Kaizen.”


Applications of Lean


In hospitals, Lean has created more organized storerooms and pharmacies, implemented surgery checklists and created more safe and efficient patient discharge processes, to name a few. Lean leaders always return to the key questions: How do we create better value for our customer? How can we maintain or improve our level of quality with less waste?


Ideal Use of Lean – From the Top to the Trenches


Joe Anderson, professor of Business at NAU’s Franke School of Business, is a big proponent of Lean. He even claims studying and implementing the principle in his own work and home life to be somewhat addictive.

“One of the key concepts of Lean is continuous improvement, otherwise known as ‘Kaizen,’” said Anderson. “Ideally, Lean develops an organizational wide culture of continuous improvement on all levels.”

Anderson notes that Lean works best when it goes to where the work is actually done. “Another good concept from Lean is looking at processes on the ground level – by asking those actually doing the work, like individuals on the line at a car plant or nurses on a unit floor, how the work could be done better,” said Anderson. “Lean is also useful because it involves asking those on the ground what is causing them trouble in their work, what obstructions they are facing.”

“When Susan [K. Williams, also an associate professor at the W. A. Franke College of Business at NAU, and Anderson’s partner] and I visited a hospital using Lean, even those working food service proudly displayed how they’d used lean principles to better organize their food stores and cut down on wasted food,” said Anderson. “Lean really works best when it’s a part of all levels of an organization, and develops a culture of willingness to change.”

Williams agrees with Anderson that Lean works best when it is used throughout an organization, but notes that leaders at the top really need to be invested. “We visited several companies, and I believe the top levels have to be committed,” she said. “But a lot of the changes do have to come from the work day in and day out, because those on the ground are the ones who know how to make things better. I attended a Flagstaff Medical Center class with Ricardo (a Lean blackbelt), and he will often ask people on the front lines ‘What makes your job frustrating?’ ‘What can we do to make it better?’ – this is how Lean leaders can identify real problems in the workflow.”

According to Steve Spravzoff, vice president of Northern Arizona Healthcare, “for us, and for anyone using Lean, the front line workers are the most important. There is a saying in Lean that ‘the work will show you the way to improvement.’ What that means is that we go to the workers to make improvements, rather than just having a top down processes. In order to make improvements, we have to see what’s actually happening on the ground and understand the workflow.”

Spravzoff knows that new systems, particularly those that claim to increase efficiency and cut waste sometimes make employees nervous, but he claims that with Lean, those fears are unnecessary. “Sometimes people think Lean implementation means people will lose their jobs, but that’s not what Lean is about,” said Spravzoff. “Lean is not mean. It’s not about cutting employees, or saving cost at any price. However, it can help us cut cost while maintaining or improving quality. Our quality at FMC is better than ever, but our rates (at Flagstaff Medical Center) didn’t go up this year, as they’ve had to every year in the past. Using Lean means more value for our patients.”

When asked for specific examples of how Lean can be implemented in a healthcare environment, Spravzoff said, “Lean is a useful approach to improving any process in the hospital, from something as small as how we organize a storeroom so staff can find medical supplies more quickly, all the way up to something as big as how a patient moves through the hospital from admittance to discharge.”


Taking Precautions with the Implementation Lean


On the other hand, any system, including Lean, can cause problems if it’s implemented in a thoughtless way. Brian Barnier, principal analyst at ValueBridge Advisors, LLC, says managers implementing Lean do need to be cautious. He also believes that Lean principles are very old, and that some of the language around the Lean system, as we see it today, is little more than marketing buzzwords.

“The business objective is the light to follow,” said Barnier. “It’s crucial to know what brings risk – in order to achieve risk-to-performance objectives (financial or operational). And the risk must be assessed in the context of a specific, real world system, operating with processes,” said Barnier. “If the real world context is lost, there is a new risk to achieving critical performance objectives. We’ve seen this in snapped supply chains, quality complications or companies being squashed by competitors.

“To put it simply,” said Barnier, “before cutting your spices, ask how you want the cake to taste.”

He explained, “The crucial starting point is knowing the business – really understanding the environment and capabilities. For example, you don’t want to ship all your ammunitions on one boat if it’s WWII and there’s risk of that boat going down. In other words, those implementing Lean have to really understand the environment before they start trying to cut waste.”

Understanding risk, the environment and real world capabilities seems particularly important in healthcare, where the service being provided to the customer/patient is a question of life or death. But, according to Spravzoff, “at FMC, patients are our purpose, so everything we do with Lean is for the sake of improving quality and increasing the value of healthcare to our patients.”


How Lean is Being Used Locally and Even Personally


Local organizations using Lean include Gore, NorChem, Mountain Heart, Northern Arizona Healthcare, Northern Arizona University, Motor Excellence and many others.

Lean can be applied to small businesses and even to personal projects. For example, when frequent food shoppers make grocery lists, they often organize by area of store, to eliminate unnecessary backtracking (wasted motion) or forgetting things and needing to return for them (wasted transportation and correcting errors).

Anderson and Williams say they have even organized their camping equipment according to Lean principles.

So, whether you’re the owner of a small company, an administrator in a large organization or just want to become more efficient in your daily life, Lean is worth some consideration. FBN





Although systems differ somewhat, types of waste (called muda) include:


1) Transport (unnecessary movement of materials or products.)

2) Inventory (Keeping unnecessary/unused stock.)

3) Motion (A need for unnecessary physical movement –like walking.)

4) Waiting (Unnecessary waiting between steps of a process.)

5) Overproduction (Producing more than is needed/demanded.)

6) Over Processing (Doing more work than is called for or required for quality.)

7) Defects (Unnecessary effort in correcting defects and errors.)

8) Human Talent – The eighth waste. (For example, not using workers’ ideas for improvement.)


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