In the last 9 years or so with the niche of Lean Manufacturing or as some people like to call it, Lean Management, I have seen the concept of Lean taking a severe beating at the hands of the ‘so-called practitioners’. For them and many more who are piling up by every passing day, Lean is a way of flushing out posh reports and scorecards. Ask them what is Lean and they would tell you that Lean is all about reducing inventory, stock turns, reducing batch size and so on.

Alright, Lean gets you these benefits for sure, but where are the fundamentals for implementation of Lean. For every building you need a strong base without which you can be sure the collapse is imminent, predictable and probably rather near. It is this point that most Lean practitioners miss. Probably, a part of that is also to be blamed on the way they did their Lean training. Let us get the trend straight by understanding 4 Lean principles, which needs to be considered by every Lean practitioner the moment he talks about implementing Lean.

The 4 Lean Principles

Principle 1: Respect for People

This is one principle that I find being violated grossly across most places where I have seen what people would like me to believe is Lean implementation. I went around asking 10 people at random one question, “Do you feel respected at work?” The answer was No.  Empowering people is one of the key tenets of Lean, actually borrowed from TPS. TPS originated in Japan, a country that places enormously unusual emphasis on respect for people.

I say unusual, because often this is a word that is practiced in a very hollow form in a lot of countries and companies. All said and done – Respect for people has to be one of the key fundamentals for proper implementation of Lean.

Principle 2: Push or Pull

Okay now. This is the top favorite for a lot of Lean practitioners. Do we migrate our Push processes to Pull processes? This thought comes through from Lean’s key pillar, JIT or Just in Time production which mandates, “The right product of the right quality in the right quantity at the right time.” JIT implementations in companies often result in a move from Push to Pull. For the uninitiated, Push is forecast based production while Pull is demand based production.

Nothing wrong with moving from Push to Pull, but practitioners need to consider one thing --- The ecological balance and the economics of the company. In implementing Pull, the production planning and the customer demand to shipping needs to be perfectly synchronized. Ask a lot of companies and they’d tell you that doing this is a herculean task.

So, leave alone moving it entirely to Pull. At best, you can only streamline activities of a sub-process to work in a Pull harmony, but Pull for an entire company from Push --- Think about the Wait time for the customer?

Principle 3: Value – Who Defines It?

Lean by definition is a principle of reducing non-value adding activities and eliminating wastes, with waste being anything unnecessary and non-value adding activity being any activity that doesn’t add value to the customer. Please note --- To the customer! I know of some companies that define value from their perspective with all good reasons because they don’t want to be in red.

Remember --- It is the customer who defines value for the product, and not the business. The business can at most attempt to match the list of the value-add activities and in the process may still end up having non-value adding activities that are mandatory for the business.  The problem is --- Most businesses bill their customers for the non-value add activities. That is not right, at least fundamentally.

Principle 4: Training Employees

Now, it is a no-brainer that for something new to succeed, the employees need to be trained. In Lean though, things are slightly different. Mere training will not suffice. It needs to be followed up with enough Gemba walks, and Kamiyashibai Boards implementation. Importantly, even post training employees should be allowed to make mistakes and be respected for recognizing their errors. This goes a long way in ensuring that the respect factor stays.

At the end of it, I’d have been tempted to write something on the management as well, and might as I, but I’d have to stop with this. Management contribution to Lean implementation would need one full do and space seems to be an issue here.

The 5 Lean Principles

  1. Value
  2. Value Chain or Value Stream
  3. Flow
  4. Pull
  5. Perfection

Let me explain each of them for you.

Principle 1: Value

One of the first foregone conclusions whenever someone talks about Lean in a company is who defines value. Most think it is the organization, which is a misplaced thought. It is always the customer of the product or the service that defines value for the product. It is the company’s duty to stay by the customer’s definition of value and always offer him a product or a service that adheres to the customer’s definition of value.

Principle 2 : Value Chain or Value Stream

Once the value factor has been defined by the customer, the next step is to draw a map which contains the exact flow of information, value as well as the product through the Operations cycle. Such a map is known as Value Stream Map and is one of the key elements of a Lean implementation. Shown above is the way how a Value Stream Map looks like. Drawing this is not tough as you would find a lot of ready templates that help you draw a VSM easily.
Simply drawing a Value Stream Map may not do the deal. There is plenty of analysis and times you need to work on, but I guess that can be spoken about later.

Principle 2 : Flow

If you have not been able to establish flow in a typical Lean process, what have you done? The concept of flow is the actual blood and veins of any Lean implementation. What is Flow? --- Simple, the product or the service actually flows between steps of the process and doesn’t stop at any point. Lean practitioners refer to this concept as Continuous Flow.
Some jazzy jargon dealers work on the concept of One-Piece Flow or Single Piece Flow. As you can see, the common quotient in all of them is --- Flow. At the end of the day, when the product or the service flows between different steps in the process with minimum delays, waste is reduced or at the best of times, eliminated.
Want further proof of the power of flow --- Flow reduces inventory levels, reduces the mother of all wastes, Overproduction. Any questions?

Principle 3 : Pull

Okay. Flow actually does a lot of things and one of them is it minimizes the throughput time.  What next? Work on creating pull from the customers. This is the way how it should work. The customer should place an actual demand. The supermarket in the production line should be in a position to ship to the customer demand. Any shortfall would mean a KANBAN triggered via Production Control. On shipment of product to the customer, a production KANBAN must be initiated to keep the supermarket full, in case of a new withdrawal coming your way!
That being said, moving from a Perfect Push to a Complete Pull is subjecting the company to a major pitfall --- Disrupting the Balance and Harmony of the ecosystem in the company! Oh yes --- And this is one of the reasons why a lot of business owners decide against taking to Pull anyways!

Principle 4 : Perfection

Perfection is probably stretching it a bit far. I’d name it Continuous Improvement. The problem is with the four steps it is very easy for a company to go in a shell. No harm in that so long as you do not close your eyes to any future improvement opportunities. The moment you do that --- Your past Lean implementations don’t hold any good and you’d have to start all over again.
Kaizen is the buzzword. The company should be buzzing with Kaizen events all the while, which probably summarizes a perfect execution of the 5 Lean principles.

Summarizing, these key principles will always be a part of Lean implementations across the globe, or at least they should be. These don’t have any mathematical calculations assigned, so it shouldn’t be tough to implement. Yet, it is the easier things where we flounder, don’t we?

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