LEAN Six Sigma within Small Company

Lean Six Sigma in small companies, still effective?

Lean Six Sigma within a Small Company

Lean and six sigma strategies are known the world over for their effectiveness in helping to reduce waste and variation in production processes. That said, much of the information and many of the case studies we have on these techniques are conducted within the context of businesses that operate on a much larger scale than many that we ourselves might be associated with. 

Even the origins of lean, for example, Toyota, a behemoth in the car manufacturing industry. It might be this very thing that prompted LinkedIn poster Anita C. to ask if it would be possible to implement Lean Six Sigma techniques in her company. Anita’s company apparently consists of about 100 workers in total

While this workforce may seem large or small depending on your current palace of work, it’s certainly smaller than many of the production giants that are best known for their Lean implementation. Anita wanted to know if it was possible to implement lean techniques and improve business processes even in a business with a relatively small number of employees.

Luckily for Anita, the LinkedIn community was more than happy to provide  some answers. Furthermore, they seemed to be fairly unanimous in arguing that not only was it possible to implement Lean Six Sigma into a small company, but it might even be easier to do so. In fact, the strengths of implementing Lean in a small company seemed to outweigh in total the drawbacks or potential difficulties.

Let’s dig into a few of the reasons why that might actually be…

Strength: Lean Techniques are Easily Scale-able.

Because Lean tools don’t have specific numerical goals, or even percentage ones, it becomes quickly apparent that they are able to be changed to just about whatever scale of business you’re involved in.

For example, individual techniques like 5S, Gemba walks, or the various visual mapping formats associated with Lean Six Sigma all work exactly the same regardless of how big your business is. This alone makes Lean in a small business easier than perhaps originally thought.

Strength: There are Less Layers of Bureaucracy

One of the biggest barriers in any organization to successful Lean Six Sigma projects is ‘the man.’  The person or people in charge can make or break a campaign for continuous improvement, and there’s often not much you can do once a decision is made. 

That said, this is one of the areas in which small businesses are not only capable of Lean Six Sigma, but might actually have a great advantage in the early stages of implementation. Poster Hugh Chrisholm says that the success of a Lean program is often directly and positively correlated with how close those carrying out the effort are to the people in charge. 

As Chrisholm reminds us, the costs of everything you do are going to be weighed against your perceived value until you can show some actual value (by way of data that shows positive changes over time). In a business where many layers lie between putting a face with the Lean work being done, it becomes easier for the higher ups to call off Lean Six Sigma efforts altogether. Plus, being able to check in regularly with your boss allows you to help garner buy-in over time. Showing why each stage of progression is important while it happens and being in constant contact make it easier to keep people on board until the real results start rolling in. Even at this point, they can appear kind of abstract without proper context, and being close allows you to do this. 

Challenge: Small Businesses can be Resistant to Change

LEAN Six Sigma within Small CompanyOf course, Lean in small businesses isn’t entirely painless. There is at least one mitigating factor that can have an impact on how easy/effective your efforts are. Namely, the very nature of a small business can sometimes foster a resistance to change.

In a large company, a more authoritarian relationship between management and employees means that changes and policies are expected and compliance is generally high. In a small business, however, especially where ‘everyone knows everyone,’ some workers may not feel as compelled to completely adjust their habits just because someone told them to do so.

Businesses with less employees are also less likely to experience worker turnover, meaning that the same workers will be around for longer. While this is a good thing in most cases, it can sometimes mean that employees get more and more ingrained in their ways because they’ve been at them for so many years.

Bringing in a new program (if Lean Six Sigma is new to your workplace, that is) has to be approached tactfully then. In a small to medium business, especially one without constant policy shifts, it’s a good idea to fully explain and teach the basic ideas of continuous improvement culture long before you expect them to be independently adopted and practiced.

Strength: Lean Six Sigma can Strengthen Leadership in a Small Business

Powerpoint Training PresentationAs mentioned before, leadership is often less strict and bureaucratic in a small business. While this is good for some things, it does usually impact organization because the need to have a specific system for every little thing isn’t as readily apparent when you aren’t working on a very large scale.

Lean and Six Sigma simply aren’t worth their effort if you’re not going to track baselines, changes, and a wide range of data to allow you to accurately figure out what’s effective for your business. If your workplace is lacking in these things already, however, you’ll find that implementing the required structure for Lean Six Sigma can be helpful in a number of other ways. Approaching other aspects of your business in the same scientific, analytical way can really help you. 

Is Lean for Your Business?

So, can Lean find its way into your small business’ heart?  Absolutely, and it might not even require as large of a paradigm shift as you might expect! Of course, like anything, you’ll want to be careful to educate completely anyone involved in your projects so that expectations are laid out plainly from the very start. Have you found success with Lean implementation in a small to mid-sized business? Let us know!

Resistance to Change

Resistance to Change in LEAN and How to Overcome it

Overcoming Resistance to Change

Resistance to ChangeIf you are trying to implement LEAN in your facility, or even just make improvements to an existing LEAN manufacturing strategy, you will need to make some changes. Change is a major component of any type of improvement effort, and sadly, it is also one of the biggest obstacles.

There is a strong resistance to change for many people, and it can make them fight hard to keep the status quo. It seems that it is just a part of human nature to resist any type of change at all. Even when the change is going to benefit those who are most effected, they will often be hesitant to embrace it.

Is Resistance to Change Bad?

At first glance, most people immediately assume that all resistance to change is a bad thing. The reality is, however, that there is such thing as a healthy resistance to change. This resistance can help force people to take a step back and really look at the pros and cons of a given situation, so that they can make the best decisions going forward.

If nobody had any type of resistance in this area, things would be constantly changing without ever slowing down enough to see what is working and what isn’t. The reality is, you need to balance this resistance with the need for ongoing improvement. When done properly, your facility can be in a constant state of improvement without suffering the difficulties associated with unmitigated change.

To do this, you must find good ways to work with those who are resistant to change. Finding a way to listen to the concerns of those who don’t like change, while still pushing the facility ahead with smart LEAN improvements can help position your facility well for today and the future. The following tips can help you to find that balance.

Give Plenty of Notice

Resistance to Change and Give plenty of NoticeWhenever you are making any type of change in the facility, one of the most important things you can do is give everyone as much notice of the change as possible. Letting people have time to get used to the idea will give them the opportunity to ease into the change, and express any concerns they may have.

While this may not always be possible, it should be done when it is so that people are more comfortable. In addition to helping people to accept the change more easily, it will also give you some extra time to spot any problems with the process so that adjustments can be made and problems avoided.

Solicit Feedback

When considering any type of LEAN change, make sure you are asking people for feedback. In many cases, the people on the front lines of the facility will be able to spot problems in a change more easily than you will be able to.

With this in mind, you should always solicit feedback from the employees before any plan for change is finalized. This will not only help you to ensure you are coming up with the best possible plan, but it will also make the employees feel like they are more a part of the process. In many cases, this can help overcome any resistance to change that they may have.

Announce Changes Individually

When you are ready to announce changes, it can be tempting to gather everyone together to make the announcement all at once. While this can save time, it can also lead to a small number of people causing the rest of the group to resist the change.

If you sit down with each individual that will be impacted by the change, you can answer questions and explain the situation directly to them so they are more likely to understand why it is happening. In many cases, this can help to avoid unnecessary conflict, and get many of the people on board with the change right from the beginning.

Don’t Deny the Problems

Resistance to Change and ProblemsWhenever there is change it will cause some problems to some people. Even if the change is necessary and will help make huge improvements in the facility as a whole, some individuals may end up having additional responsibilities or having to do a job that they don’t like. Rather than trying to minimize or deny these negative consequences, accept them and acknowledge that there will be some difficulties for some individuals.

For example, if you are looking to implement a new LEAN process where machine and vehicle maintenance is tracked by using an industrial label maker (similar to this one) to create custom bar codes for each machine, it will obviously help improve the facility in many ways. The fact is, however, that someone will be responsible for making these labels, applying them, and even the maintenance teams will have to learn how to use the new system.

Overall, this will be a major improvement that can reduce downtime, increase efficiency and prevent a lot of problems. Trying to gloss over the direct impact to those who will be experiencing the change directly, however, will only cause them to become more resistant to the change itself. This can make it harder to roll out the change and cause many other problems as well.

Understand the Emotions

Some people in management tend to ignore or downplay the importance of how changes can emotionally affect the employees. Even some of the employees will try to hide the fact that they are scared, or hurt by a change.

Rather than just ignoring this fact, do all you can to empathize with the employees. Over the past several decades millions of people in factories, warehouses, and other facilities have been put out of work because of different changes, so it is completely understandable that they are worried.

Rather than just acting like the emotional responses people are having are invalid, attempt to address them at their root. If the employees fear that the LEAN changes may end up causing some people to get laid off, let them know that this is not the intent of the change. Explain that the increased efficiency is going to drive higher profits and make the company more stable for them.

Of course, if people will be getting laid off, don’t lie about that either. Explain that it is a possibility and go over whatever efforts the company is going to make to help ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible. While difficult, a little bit of understanding can go a long way.

Change is Hard

I found this great quote in an article found on isixsigma.com,

“For new technology to be embraced, people have to believe that it has 10 times the advantages of what people were previously doing,” according to Peter Drucker.

As you can likely see, change is going to be hard and no matter what you do, there will be some resistance to this change. When implementing a lean strategy for your facility, however, you need to put in the effort needed to help everyone get on board with the important changes that need to happen for the improvement of the facility.


If You Were Stuck On An Island With Only 3 Six Sigma Tools…

The Best Lean Six Sigma Tools

There’s a great book that came out four or five years ago called “Dear Me.”  It’s a project from an editor who wanted to contact celebrities from all walks of entertainment, industry, and more and ask them to write a letter to their 16 year old selves. Some of the letters were very personal, others spoke in more general terms, clearly seeking to share knowledge with the reader rather than just their own “16 year old self.”

I was reminded of the book the other day when Lean Six Sigma newbie Mario de Graaff posted in the Lean Six Sigma LinkedIn group stating that he was new to the concepts of Lean and Six Sigma and wanted to know what tools professionals recommended, and why. Some of the responses that followed read a lot like I-wish-I’d-have-known-this-when-I-started letters to a younger, more inexperienced self.

From de Graaff’s question arose some great suggestions for how to get a footing with Lean Six Sigma and which tools he should start out with. As an added bonus, several users even talked about different ideologies within Lean or reference materials that might help further understanding. Today, I want to go over the creation of a sort of “Beginner’s Toolbox” for Lean Six Sigma, and think about what concepts would be the best to get someone started in not only understanding but also implementing Lean Six Sigma in their own work.

Six Sigma Tool – Mindset Progression

While maybe not typically touted as a “tool,” there’s a lot to be said for an understanding of your actual goals in Lean Six Sigma before you go about chasing whatever it is you think they are. One of my favorite comments from this discussion comes from Sean Towlson, a manager at a logistics firm. He mentions the “Bellinger, Castro, and Mills Knowledge Model,” which brings into play an understanding of the observations you make throughout Lean Six Sigma as shown through three distinct stages.

At the most basic level, you’re going to be collecting data, that’s raw information that, while good to have, is only useful if you’re able to interpret it. As you begin to understand what you’re looking at, you’ll be able to see relationships between sets of data or aspects of your business. Sometimes these are easy to spot, sometimes they’re more complex and multifaceted. Finally, the third phase is being able to recognize patterns. Over time, you want to be able to pluck out repeat offenders in your operations.

When you’re new to Lean Six Sigma, it could be extremely beneficial to, rather than trying to take everything in at once, think about moving through your evaluations and data in these three phases. In the end, it should offer you some clarity in your choice of which actual tools you choose to implement.

Six Sigma Tool – DMAIC

DMAIC is familiar tool to Six Sigma practitioners, and it’s one that shouldn’t be left out in the cold for beginners. A huge benefit for someone new to Lean Six Sigma is that it helps to establish a clear framework of how you can go about working through a problem. Also important to note:  Although DMAIC is traditionally associated with Six Sigma (variation reduction) specifically, the framework is also perfectly applicable to Lean (waste reduction) projects as well. DMAIC, as I see it simplified, goes a little something like this:

Define:  This is where you’re defining what your problem is, and what effects it’s having. At this phase, you don’t have to be overly scientific, but you should be specific.

Measure & AnalyzeThink of measuring as a hypothesis test for your issue definition; you’re going to be measuring variables involved to see to what extent something is having an impact. I combine these two steps because, without one the other is pointless. Collect your data, and then dig into it to find out what it’s telling you about the problem you’re having and (very important!) the types of solutions that could be effective.

ImproveNow that you’ve done your analysis, dive in and construct a plan to affect change. Follow through and implement, don’t just plan or map out forever. Remember, you’ve got data on your side already at this point, so you can generally be confident in your decisions here.

ControlControl can be a bit vague, but the easiest way for beginners to understand it is to think that if your improve step was about the short term change, then you want to ‘control’ long term direction as well. You’re basically looking for ways to sustain any improvements you’ve made by ensuring that new behaviors and policies stick.

Six Sigma Tool – SIPOC

SIPOC, or supplier, input, process, output, and customer, was also name dropped a couple of times within the discussion. I wanted to include this technique primarily because where DMAIC is meant to walk a problem to solution, SIPOC is more about simply giving an overview of a process to someone who might not be familiar with it. This can be especially helpful when explaining processes you want to work on to your boss(es), a team you’re working with, etc.

In SIPOC, you’ll be creating a table in order to lay out all appropriate factors for each section. The first column will list all of the supplier stakeholders in a process. Next, all inputs that come from the suppliers, directly or indirectly, are filled in. After that, the way(s) in which those inputs will be processed is listed out, before the fourth column lists out all the expected outputs from the process(es). Finally, you list what the consumer or end user receives, in full.

It’s easy and intuitive, and it can really help jump past some of the barriers we as Lean Six Sigma professionals will encounter when trying to illustrate the scenarios we work in to others.

The Lean Swiss Army Knife

In the original discussion, it seemed that many of the suggestions were more about understanding Lean Six Sigma concepts and mindsets rather than actual tools for problem solving. While this may not be exactly the kind of stuff that gets new practitioners excited, I’m inclined to agree with the approach used by the posters. In my experience, many of the individual ‘tools’ we use are so specific to certain situations that it’s kind of silly to suggest any one, three, or ten even as the “best” ones.

Furthermore, the specificity of such tools only underscores the need to have already mapped out and become familiar with the issues you’re facing and want to change before you ever reach for a solution. That said, just for the heck of it, here are a number of effective Lean or Six Sigma tools, in no particular order, that certainly have their time and place.

  • 5S
  • Heijunka
  • Product Intervals
  • Takt Time
  • Kanban
  • Kaizan concept

and many more.

Each has their own uses, and there isn’t nearly enough time or room today to go into each one. I think the number one most important thing to keep in mind when getting into Lean Six Sigma from a relatively clean slate is that you’re entering a discipline that most people will continue to hone after years, and even decades of experience.

Furthermore, there are a number of divergent paths that will continually challenge what you might think you already know, meaning that you may wish to look elsewhere if quick fixes and absolute certainty are important to you.

Kanban Cards

Kanban Cards – Six Essential Types

Improving Communication with Kanban Cards

Kanban CardsIf you are looking to implement or improve your Kanban communication system, you will need to make sure you have all the right types of Kanban cards available. These cards are the main tool for this type of system, and actually give it the name. Kanban in Japanese means ‘instruction card’ or ‘visual card.’

These cards are typically (though not always) physical cards that are placed on or near a product, and travel through the system to provide information to people along the line. There are multiple different types of Kanban cards used in the program, which allow people to provide the information that is needed at any given point.

Learn How Kanban Systems are Used in a Lean Manufacturing Environment

The following are the six most common types of Kanban cards that you should have for your facility:

1. Withdrawal or Conveyance Kanban Cards

These cards are used to alert people when a part is finished with in one area. In many production lines parts need to be worked on in one area for some time, and then transferred to the next. This card will signal that parts are ready to be moved. When the next station in the process is finished with the products, they can send the withdrawal Kanban card to the previous area, signaling that they are ready for additional work.

2. Supplier Kanban Cards

This is something of a unique type of card as it goes outside of the normal production line. You can include your suppliers in the Kanban card system, so that you can send them a notification when you are ready for more of a particular part. While these cards can be physical, they are more often going to be digital or even represented by a phone call.

3. Emergency Kanban Cards

These cards are used when something is broken or has any type of defect. When a problem is discovered with one part or a series of parts, the emergency Kanban card will be sent to the previous station so they can be aware of the problem. These cards can notify them of what type of problem exists so that they can make sure the items they are working on doesn’t also have the same issues.

In some cases, these cards will also cause the previous work stations to stop working so that they don’t create a backup of work while the issues are being addressed.

4. Express Kanban Cards

The express card, as the name implies, says that there is a shortage in a particular part that is needed right away. This card is used to signal that the manufacturing may have to slow down or stop if the indicated parts are not supplied right away.

5. Production Kanban Cards

This type of Kanban card will typically have a list of all the parts that are required at a given time. A workstation may provide this card to an area in the facility to tell them what types of things they need to focus on in order to allow them to continue with production. These cards also signal the start of production for the facility.

6. Through Kanban Cards

This type of Kanban card is basically a combined withdrawal and production card. It is typically done between two different production points that work closely together, and can help to save time by avoiding having to send two cards back and forth whenever there is a status change.

Using Kanban Cards

Whether you have been using a Kanban system for years, or you are just starting to implement this methodology, it is important to make sure you are using the cards properly. Each of these types of Kanban cards has a specific use, and when handled properly they can help to improve the overall efficiency of the facility.

In the event that you run out of these cards at any point because they are lost or damaged, you can always print off custom labels from any industrial label printer to use until new physical cards arrive. 

Great Pipe Marking Examples

To improve communication, safety and efficiency in workplaces that contain many pipes, using a pipe marking system can be very helpful. Standard pipe labels can quickly convey information about what’s inside a pipe and where it’s traveling. 

The industry consensus standard for pipe marking is ANSI/ASME A13.1, which offers guidelines for color schemes, sizes and locations of pipe labels. 

The color guidelines specify what colors should be used for six main types of pipe contents. The labels must use white text or black text, depending on the background color (see the chart below). There are also four additional colors that can be used at a facility’s discretion.

Pipe Labeling Colors

The size of pipe labels depends on the size of your pipes. The larger the pipe, the larger the label—and the text on the label—needs to be. Required sizes range from eight to 32 inches in length (for the whole label) with a letter height between half an inch and three-and-a-half inches, depending on the diameter of the pipe. Consult this free guide for more detailed measurement information. 

Finally, labels must be placed in four main locations:

  1. On straight runs, at 25 to 50-foot intervals
  2. At locations where a pipe’s direction changes
  3. At entry points through walls and floors (on both sides)
  4. Next to flanges and valves

The labels should also be placed on the pipes at locations that are easy to read. For example, if a pipe is located on the floor, placing the label above the pipe’s centerline (closer to the top of the pipe) would make it more visible to those standing in the area. 

Now, let’s take a look at some examples of pipe marking labels that achieve what they need to. 

Pipe Marking, Pipe Labels

In the photo above, a standard, ANSI-compliant label is used to mark a pipe that carries compressed air. The prescribed blue background with white text is used and the text itself is sufficiently large to be seen from a distance. Arrows even point in the direction the air flows. 

This label has been applied to a pipe wrap, but the wrap is not required (this facility may have found it easier to apply the label to a wrap than directly to the pipe).

Pipe Marking, Pipe Labels

This red and white label communicates the fact that this large, orange pipe contains fire protection water, which can be critical information for emergency responders during an incident. A large pipe like this needs to have a label at least 32 inches in length with three-and-a-half inch lettering, which looks to be the case here. 

Also worth nothing is the placement of this label; it’s located where a pipe turns and then merges with another pipe. Whenever a pipe changes direction like this, a label is needed. 

Pipe Marking, Pipe Labels

The yellow and black labels on these four pipes indicate that flammable materials travel through the pipes. These substances can be hazardous, so using easily recognizable colors for hazards is important in this location. The labels also use bold text and directional arrows, so anyone working in the area can easily tell what is in the pipes. 

Placing labels like these at eye level will also help ensure people can easily read them. While we can’t be positive these labels are at eye level because of the frame of the photo, it’s worth noting that you should always think about where labels will be most visible. 

Pipe Marking, Pipe Labels

ANSI specifies that facilities should place pipe labels next to all valves and flanges, as can be seen in this photo. This facility also added additional directional arrows after the branch in the pipe to clarify the direction the water flows. 

This example also reinforces the importance of using a large label with large text on pipes like this one with a large diameter. 

Pipe Marking, Pipe Labels

These sections of straight pipes show how to label long sections of pipe that don’t turn. These sections need to be labeled every 25 to 50 feet. 

In this case, the facility did a good job of selecting where on the pipes to place the labels. These pipe markings are placed slightly below each pipe’s centerline so workers on the facility floor can easily look up and read them. If the labels were placed any higher, it would be difficult to read them from the ground, and if they were placed on the bottom of the pipes, anyone who isn’t standing directly below would struggle to read them. 

Follow the Guidelines, But Consider the Context 

It’s important to follow ANSI/ASME guidelines for pipe marking, but you should always do so within the context of your facility. Perhaps your workspace would be easier for employees to navigate if labels were placed at more frequent intervals on straight runs or if the text were larger. Maybe one of the optional colors like purple or white would be helpful. Create a system that is effective for your business and that will provide employees the information they need to know in the locations where they work.

If you need to print lots of pipe labels, also consider making them yourself with an industrial label printer. Learn more about pipe marking in the SlideShare below.

Pipe Marking 101 by Creative Safety Supply from Creative Safety Supply


Kaizen Events – A Forgotten Art?

Why do companies not use Kaizen events to improve?

Kaizen EventsA recent LinkedIn discussion asked users why they thought many companies bypassed the use of Kaizen events to solve their problems. Apparently, the technique is a dying breed, or at least there are those who feel it is far from prominent enough. First of all, it’s important to note that a Kaizen event is different from the overall idea of ‘Kaizen’. A Kaizen event is a short window, highly targeted event that usually happens over the course of anywhere from one or two days to one or two weeks (for very large and involved projects). 

The main concern seems to be not that the entire idea of Kaizen isn’t alive and well in the workplace, but that events themselves are less and less common.

The ‘So What’

The reason for alarm is based around the general consensus that short term Kaizen events are generally more effective at accomplishing both impacting and lasting goals than long term visions and plans of some vague “continuous improvement.”  While long term improvement goals are far from useless, they generally seem to have a higher failure rate than specific events. 

Why Kaizen Events Are Preferred

The higher success rate of targeted Kaizen events can first be attributed to the fact that they happen over a shorter period of time. Let’s say you have two options for re-arranging two of your assembly lines in a fashion determined to be more efficient. You can one assembly line for one work day, then the other one for the following day (still having half your operations running for each day), or you can make small adjustments to each over a period of 3-4 months.

The longer term plan is less invasive and managers usually think “Well, we still end up in the same place, so let’s do that way!” The problem is that most of that reasoning is purely anecdotal, and long term plans often fall victim to a number of factors that mean they don’t get completed at all. One factor is bureaucracy and inattentiveness. If there’s changeover in leadership over the course of the months or years you’re implementing an improvement plan, you’ve got to convince someone else all over again that what you’re doing shouldn’t just be scrapped on the spot. Worker turnover can also shake up support for an ongoing task, and people can also just plain get bored and lose focus. Even if your vision stays strong, the main thing you have on your side is your people, and they get easier to lose with each ongoing week/month a task drags out.

Why People Ignore Kaizen Events

So if these events are purportedly so much better, why do we see discussions lamenting their lack of use? For starters, people are afraid of total stoppage. Stopping an assembling line or pulling workers away from their work for a period of time will obviously put a dent in short term production, and this scares people. Even if you would lose more time in small changes over the course of a few months, what people focus on is the big, easily measurable stop that gets put on things in the short term.

Poster David Powe also said this can be a symptom of a business that’s perceived to be “too busy” for any kind of delay. He also wrote that sometimes a business might not truly understand the Kaizen process, or be trying to do a quick “home made” version rather than consulting a professional who could help them work out underlying factors that, if not addressed, would make their efforts a waste, in turn leading to bad experiences with (what they think of as) Kaizen all around.

One of the best points Powe brings up is that Kaizen relies on empowering employees to actively assist in improvement efforts. One proposed reason that Kaizen projects aren’t used, then, is that people don’t trust their employees enough to depend on them to get a project done in the allotted window. This, however, is more likely to be a symptom of an overall (bigger) problem with your work environment and employee/employer dynamics than with any principle(s) of Kaizen itself. 

Kaizen Events and the Vision

Kaizen Event TeamWhat’s more important than knowing why Kaizen events fail, however, is knowing how you can avoid becoming part of the statistic. If you want to use Kaizen events to bring about change in your operation, what should you be doing?

First of all, get a vision… a long term one, even if your project is only short term. Let’s say your boss says that the company just doesn’t have the time or resources to dedicate to a Kaizen project right now. You’ve showed him a blueprint for the project, the expected benefits are good, but you just can’t get the green light.

Take a step back and take a look at your business’ annual cycle. If you’re a consumer goods store, for example, conducting a project that would slow down production going into the Christmas season could be disastrous, the same could be said for a swimwear company whose factory is shutdown for a project in May. That said, there are probably lulls in your annual cycle that would create ideal time windows for improvement projects. In this way, even a quick, short term project can require long term planning.

Another factor of the long game is resource allocation. For example, even though you don’t have the resources for a major overhaul right now, some smaller, less-impactful projects could help free up resources so that you do have the means to initiative a quick, effective Kaizen event in the near future. Even if you can’t do your big overhaul yet, freeing up workers by making small efficiency changes can give you the means to do so. It is worth noting that this is not the same thing as a longer term Kaizen project, as you are completing a series of smaller tasks that can be completed in a short time, rather than dragging out one interruption-prone longer task.

In short, Kaizen events don’t need to die out, they just need to be done better. Have you been able to successfully implement improvement changes in the middle of your own operations? How did it go? Let us know below…

Lean Six Sigma Checklist

Lean Six Sigma Checklist for Success

Lean Six Sigma ChecklistMake Your Lean Six Sigma Project a Success

Whenever you are using Lean Six Sigma to make improvements to your facility and eliminate waste, you need to make sure you take the time up front to plan it out properly. In fact, the planning stage is often considered the most important of the entire Lean Six Sigma process. During this stage you will be making a checklist to help make sure you don’t miss anything.

One great way to ensure you complete the planning properly, and then go through the entire process without overlooking any of the essential steps as defined by the Six Sigma methodologies, is to use a Six Sigma checklist. This checklist will be used throughout the process improvement initiative, but especially in the beginning phases while you are planning the improvements out.

Gather Your Team

Another important step on the Lean Six Sigma checklist is to gather together the right people for this initiative. Typically this will include people who work in the impacted area, key management individuals, and at least one or two people from outside the department. This step should be done at the beginning, but adjustments can be made as needed throughout the initiative.

Know where you are starting from

One of the most important things you can do when performing any type of process improvement in your facility is to take the time to learn about the way things are currently done. Document all you can about the current processes so that you can accurately measure how much of a benefit you are getting from the update.

In addition to helping to see how much benefit is achieved, having a good understanding of the way things currently are can help you to identify additional opportunities for improvement. This step is often much more time consuming than people would like, but it is absolutely essential for achieving the best results.

Plan Your Changes

Lean Six Sigma PlanningOnce you have clearly identified the current state of the processes you hope to improve, it is time to start planning your changes. In most cases, you will have some end goals in sight, such as reducing overall downtime or speeding up the length of time it takes to produce a part. While this is great, you also need to come up with specific changes that will help you to get to that goal.

Working with your process improvement team, identify every change, no matter how large or small, that you want to make. During this phase, you should encourage everyone to make recommendations and come up with ideas on how to improve the system. You’ll be able to choose which ones to implement in the next section.

Another important part of the implementation planning stage is to think about safety. If you are making adjustments to machines or other items in the facility, for example, this can create a significant hazard. Alerting people to these changes by using safety signs (like these) or vinyl labels (which you can find here), for example, will help avoid any accidents or injuries.

Reviewing Your Changes

Once you have a list of proposed changes, you need to review them all to make sure they will help you toward your end goal. There are a number of small things that you need to look at when reviewing potential changes, so this step is essentially a mini-checklist within the full Six Sigma checklist:

  • Conflicting Changes – You need to make sure that none of the steps within your changes are going to conflict and cause problems. Looking at all the proposed changes, and seeing how they will interact is essential.
  • Progress Toward Goal – Are the changes you will be implementing going to help make progress toward the specific goal identified for this Six Sigma project? If not, the change should be put off to the side. Even if it is a good idea, it should only be included in this project if it will help it to be a success.
  • Best Practice – Does the proposed change line up with industry best practices?  If not, think about how you can adjust it in order to make improvements.

Create Implementation Plan

Lean Six Sigma ImplementationOnce you know which changes you plan on making, you need to plan out how and when they will be made. In some cases, you can implement most or all of the changes at once. In others, however, they will need to be put in place in a specific order.

Whatever the case, you need to make sure you have a detailed implementation plan ready to go so that all the changes can happen smoothly. This will also reduce downtime and improve the results.

Part of your implementation plan should be a back out procedure too. This way, if things aren’t going well during the changes, you can ‘fail back’ to the way things were before and reevaluate the situation. Ideally this won’t be needed, but it is good to have before you make any changes. Once everything is planned out, you can proceed with planned changes and improvements.

Measuring Benefits

Lean Six Sigma SuccessOnce the changes and updates have been put in place, you should begin measuring the results immediately. In many cases, you will find that the changes actually have a negative effect at first, but this is normally because of learning curves and getting used to new processes. In addition, there is often training that is taking place at first.

Over the course of several days, weeks or even months, however, you should begin to see the predicted benefits from your changes. Gathering as much data as possible after the changes will help you to determine the success of the project, and also help you to look into future changes for the next project.

Celebrate Success & Analyze Failures

With virtually every process improvement program you will find that there are some things that were successful, and others that didn’t go as planned. Once the changes are implemented, you should take some time to celebrate the improvements that were made. This is to help show the employees and management why these types of changes are necessary and important.

In addition, however, you should also take the time to analyze the things that didn’t go well. Learning from mistakes and planning for future improvements is essential when creating a long term culture of improvement.

Check out this Gemba Infographic by Creative Safety Publishing


Creating a Lean Foundation

The Five Pillars of A Solid Lean Foundation

How to Create a Solid Lean Foundation

Creating a Lean FoundationSo, you’re looking to implement Lean in your workplace and aren’t sure where to start. Or maybe you’ve experienced some problems in previous or current Lean efforts and are trying to figure out why things aren’t quite falling into place. Whatever your predicament, we’re here to help.

In this blog post we’re going to go over five of the best ways one can prepare their business for Lean and, more importantly, set themselves up for success. The whole web of Lean ideology can be confusing and is extremely technical and involved, so while you’re learning you don’t need to be weighed down even more by uncertainty over the basics. Here are the ways in which you can help to build a solid foundation for your Lean efforts before you even begin.

5 Steps to Building a Lean Foundation

1. Know What Your Business – And Team – Do & Don’t Do Well

In life, we’re often told to challenge and push ourselves to try new things. Just as this advice can help bring about personal growth, it is also the backbone of continual improvement – you’re going to have to get comfortable with focusing on your problem areas until they’re looking better.

In a somewhat counterintuitive move, you’re going to need to, at some point, take a break from looking at where your business is lacking in order to focus on what positive skills your staff already have. Take an inventory of your workers, especially those in management and/or anyone who will be directly involved in Lean improvement projects. Start thinking about the skills that various workers have. For this first pillar, you should create a skill inventory of those who will be involved in your Lean projects. By comparing this skill inventory with observed problems, solutions will start to naturally present themselves.

2. Know What Tools Will Fit Well With Your Business & Staff

The next pillar is based upon the first; you’re going to want to use the information you collected and thought about before to start constructing your Lean toolbox. This will be a list or mental inventory of the Lean strategies most used in your continual improvement projects.

For example, some businesses which identify organization improvements as a major need will look into sorting and maintenance strategies like 5S. Those who determine they need to work on over-production or physical waste might be better suited to put strategies like “Kanban” in their toolboxes. Of course, with changing needs and industry advancements you can always change your favorite methods, but it’s very important to have a basic framework for problem solving and not just randomly look for “a Lean tool” when a project presents itself.

According to Lean Enterprise Institute:

“Standardized work is one of the most powerful but least used lean tools. By documenting the current best practice, standardized work forms the baseline for kaizen or continuous improvement. As the standard is improved, the new standard becomes the baseline for further improvements, and so on. Improving standardized work is a never-ending process.”

3. Choose your Project Selection Strategy

Just as important as identifying the tools you’ll use to solve problems is figuring out how you’re going to identify problems in the first place. If you’re using gemba (on the workfloor) walks, a visual strategy like flow charts or value stream mapping, AND just general “looking around”, you’re going to end up with an overload of possible routes – which often leads to a whole lot of nothing getting done.

When figuring out how you’ll primarily identify the areas of your business most in need of improvement, it’s important to note that they don’t need to actually be an official “Lean strategy” or have a fancy name. If you get the best information from weekly employee chats you have with each of your workers, keep that up. If you prefer to use the company books as a starting point for picking out potential problem areas, that’s fine too. As long as your suspicions can be confirmed with facts before you move to take action on them, any identification process is just fine.

4. Know What You Really Need Before You Ask For It

This pillar is primarily to aid in your interactions with management and others whose decisions will have an influence on the projects you do and don’t get to bring to fruition. One mistake new Lean practitioners will make is identifying a problem (that’s fine), pairing it with an appropriate solution (so far, so good), and then assuming that knowledge is all they’ll need to carry the effort to completion (uh oh, red flag!).

An important part of your foundation is the knowledge that every action in Lean has a reaction, and asking for “some space to conduct project XYZ” involves all kinds of extra factors; you might be changing employee work hours temporarily, displacing other workers, disrupting short term production, etc. No manager wants to be surprised by these kinds of things halfway through your project because you failed to mention (or even consider) them in the beginning. Better to be clear and knowledge of your needs from the get-go!

5. Have A ‘People Plan’

Lean Foundation People PlanPillar four is a perfect segue to the fifth pillar, as they both are wrapped up in the other people your projects will affect. ‘People plans’ are largely about learning how to communicate effectively with those who have different backgrounds and education levels than you with regard to Lean.

Remember just above, when we talked about being upfront about the requirements of a project? Communicating these requirements is complicated by the fact that it’s only effective if the person you’re talking to really understands what you’re saying.

Make the words and phrases you use easy to understand and think about how Lean concepts were explained to you in the first place; what seems second nature now was once a foreign concept, and your position will constantly force you to come to terms with this.

Of course, once the further along you get, the more knowledgeable your general workplace culture will become of the needs, tools, and terminology involved in continual improvement strategies. Just make sure you don’t jump the gun and assume you’ve reached this balance or consensus before you actually have.

Well, there you have it, five pillars for ensuring your Lean efforts go the distance. Got any suggestions for another important Lean consideration you’d include?  Feel free to let us know!


5 Continuous Improvement Traps

5 Continuous Improvement Traps

Lean Is All About Learning – But You Still Don’t Need To Make These Mistakes

5 Continuous Improvement TrapsSo you’ve heard about this whole Lean manufacturing thing, you may have even been using it already, maybe even for months or years on end… but what happens if you’re not seeing the results you wanted or expected?  What do you do if, seemingly and despite your best efforts, Lean projects tend to fall short, or collapse altogether before even reaching completion?

Thinking you’re doing everything right while seeing lackluster performance is a discouraging conundrum in any activity, but when the efficiency and profitability of a company are the things taking hits, it passes over into the realm of unacceptable and has very real consequences.

Many of the mistakes that Lean practitioners, both new and experienced, make are actually wrapped up in the planning phases of a project, even more so than the ‘during’ or the follow up. In this article, we’re going to focus on how you can eliminate some of the rookie Lean mistakes from your playbook to enhance the feasibility and effectiveness of your projects and – by extension – the benefits your business reaps from them.

Continuous Improvement Planning

When planning a Lean project, there’s a lot you need to be aware of before you jump into gear; giving each of these factors the attention it deserves can drastically improve your Lean game.

#1 – Know Everything – And Assume Nothing

Okay, that may sound a bit extreme. You don’t have to actually “know everything,” but you certainly need to have an intimate grasp of the challenges and potential solutions floating around your work floor.

Let’s say you’ve been tasked with improving throughput within a certain product line. Widgets are coming through too slow to keep up with demand, and your boss is certain that your facilities could be producing more of them each day.

In order to improve efficiency, you’ve got a metaphorical ton of Lean tools at your disposal – Gemba, Takt time management, Kanban mapping, 5S, various Kaizen subtools, just to name a few – but jotting down or speaking out any one of these phrases at this point would be putting the horse before the cart.

The problem with starting out with a solution is that it may not, if more information were gathered, turn out to be the best way to address a problem right off the bat. Unfortunately, it might also mean you end up trying to form the problem to your chosen solution in the long run, rather than the other way around (which is much more effective).

This phase is all about information gathering: observe directly, don’t guess, and keep detailed notes to really get an accurate frame of what’s going on.

#2 – Don’t Pack More Than You Need

Continuous Improvement TrapsThere’s nothing worse than dragging an extra 50lb suitcase around on vacation for three weeks and realizing you could have done without the stuff in it anyways – and by the same principle you don’t want to be midway through your Lean project and realize that, due to biting off more than you could chew, your improvement efforts are progressing painfully slowly.

Don’t go crowdsourcing opinions from the office on what needs to change, acquiescing to management directives that aren’t feasible, or just plain trying to do too much at once – look at what your own notes and research have told you and do your best to set a narrow scope of improvement for each project. Not only does this increase your likelihood of success, but it also will make it easier to measure any correlation between changes in efficiency and the actions you took as part of your improvement project.

#3 – Realistic Time Budgeting

Even once you’ve got it narrowed down to just one thing to focus on, setting realistic goals for your project timing is essential. One thing you have to keep in mind here is that your improvement efforts, and by extension the efforts you require from your employees, are going to be extra, and therefore take up time of their own.

You have to understand that budgeting time for improvement projects means that that time either has to be extra (and therefore paid) or has to take away from time for normal work activities, resulting in a possible further dip in output until the project is done. Understanding constraints and conveying them to anyone you’re accountable to or who commissioned the project is essential to do before you start.

#4 – Leave Planning Tools in the Planning Phase

As important as it is to organize your efforts and adhere to your plans, it’s good to leave the planning phase as, indeed, an isolated phase. What this means is that you’ll reach a point in your project where there aren’t any more benefits to be had by planning and scheming.

Take a lesson from any entrepreneur’s playbook: If you spend all of your time learning and planning, you’ll realize before long that a lack of actually taking action has left you in about the same place you started.

When planning a project, work as hard as you can to effectively map out what you’re going to be doing with things like charts, lists, and action or flow maps. Have these detailed enough that you can follow them during your action phase is essential so that you won’t be editing, re-working, or interpreting them part way through; these are all activities best left in the planning phase in order to avoid wasting time. 

#5 – Instill Culture, Not Results

Continuous ImprovementThe idea of not focusing on results is definitely an apparent contradiction for most beginning Lean practitioners, and it may even be a bit of a misnomer for the point I want to make, but hear me out. Of course you want results, but if shiny before and after charts or pictures are your measure of success, you’re likely going to find yourself slipping backwards on any progress you’ve made before too long.

Let’s say you take the time to “5S” an area in an organizational effort. What you really end up doing is a big organizational project that results in a spotless, perfectly organized room. You can see your progress right away; awesome, right?! 

The problem here is not understanding the deeper objectives of the tools you’re using. With 5S, your end goal isn’t actually cleaning up a space, it’s training a team to work and organize differently; in turn, this results in cleaner, more efficient spaces and systems as a “symptom” or sub-effect of the new mindset.

In any Lean project, you should be focused on the long-term, and any tangible results you see should be rooted in attitude and mindset changes. Having this kind of focus not only gives you the best chance of longevity of results, but is also more “people-focused” and helps to bring employees into the know in ways they might not often experience for normal management-lead projects. 

Final Formula to Continuous Improvement 

Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to buck conventional knowledge and many “intro to” type articles when it comes to your Lean projects. That said, it’s entirely possible to become overwhelmed trying to take in expert-level information on even one topic, let alone many.

To combat this, a good formula is to first evaluate your issue or focus without any initial thought as to a specific solution strategy (as mentioned earlier), use gathered intel to determine a path after the fact, and then focus on the people involved in that path in order to achieve your goals.

Gemba Walk

Gemba Walk – 201

Gemba Walk Know-How: Preparation & Interpretation

Gemba WalkGemba walks are a powerful piece of your Lean toolbox, and constitute a straightforward way for business owners and managers to find and remedy issues that affect their production. As Lean tools are all about efficiency and waste elimination, a Gemba walk generally fits agreeably into any improvement regimen you may already have planned or in motion.

In this blog post, we’re going to go through what exactly a Gemba walk is, with specific focus on the pre-walk prep and also on how to organize and use your results once you obtain them. The main purpose to approaching Gemba in this way is that there are countless articles already out there that simply go through how to conduct the actual walk itself.

Where such walkthroughs fall short, however, is in realizing that Gemba is mostly about the approach; a knowledgeable mindset and stellar preparation are the keys to a successful Gemba walk, and solid interpretation and presentation of results is the only way to get your time’s worth out of the technique. So, after a quick look at the core of this Lean technique, we’ll be bypassing anymore exposition on the basics.

The Quick & Dirty (Gemba) Walkthrough

Just in case you don’t know what a Gemba walk is or haven’t heard the term, it goes a little something like this: During a Gemba walk, you will be making observations about specific or various systems within your business. These will include notes on efficiency, how well (or not well) a process is currently being run, where people appear to be struggling or where bottlenecks are potentially occurring in your system, a potential safety hazard, notes on employee behavior, both positive and negative, etc.

Afterward, you’ll be using the observations that you’ve made to make improvements to the way your business runs. Ultimately, your end goal will be to cut down on waste and skyrocket your efficiency, albeit one step at a time; these are pretty much the goals of any Lean operation.

Preparing for your first Gemba Walk

In order to ensure that your walk is as effective as it can be, there are several steps you need to take and aspects you need to consider before you ever step out onto the floor with your clipboard (or iPad, or whatever you’ll be using to track your observations).

Employee Knowledge

One of the first things to consider when planning your Gemba walk is how your employees will react. A large part of this is whether they actually even know you’re “up to something” or not while you conduct the walk. In most every case – unless you’re wanting to influence the results (shame!) – it will be for the best if your employees never even hear mention of the term “Gemba walk” before you conduct it.

You’re biggest tool for authenticity and accuracy in your results is the continued normal behavior of your workers. If workers are on their best behavior just because they know you’ve got some evaluation thing you’re working on, you’re hardly going to be observing an average workday. Sure, you’d like for stellar behavior and efficiency to be the norm, but the reality is that probably isn’t the case (yet).

So, in general, keep your plans under wraps.

Narrowing Down Goals Pt. 1

By definition, Gemba is usually considered a holistic approach in which you are observing a production line or system from start to finish. That said, biting off too big of a chunk of your business at a time can make Gemba observations too general and thus less helpful to you in the end.

One of the best ways to prepare for a Gemba walk is to section off a small piece of your operation you really want to work on and improve, rather than trying to just generally make your workplace ‘more efficient’.

While not technically a Gemba walk, consider making brief walkthroughs over time and getting an idea of some of the areas of your business that need the most improvement; these will form your top candidates for real Gemba walks.

Let’s say you notice that employees are always having to spend extra time on a certain machine (maybe its attachments have become warped and are hard to take on and off, etc.). If – at a brief glance – everything else appears to be running smoothly, consider preparing to focus on that specific area of production in your walk.

Narrowing Down Goals Pt. 2 – “You know what they say about assuming…”

Once you’ve got an area you want to focus on, stop! Confused? You don’t want to be formulating theories as to why things are or aren’t working in a certain way from a distance. A huge part of Gemba are objective observations, and that means not entering the scene with any assumptions.

In crime shows on TV, standard format is to mislead the viewer by showing a suspect early on. Often, the shows detective/police characters formulate their investigation under the assumption that that individual was indeed the culprit until (surprise!) it ends up being someone else. Don’t be a fooled detective and try to fit observations/evidence to a pre-existing or ‘obvious’ theory.

Keeping this in mind will help to ensure that you don’t “tunnel vision” yourself by looking so hard at one thing you don’t see other potentially valuable observations around you.

Formulating Questions

Gemba Walk QuestionsWhile you don’t want to assume anything, you should have a framework in place for what you want to learn, so you aren’t completely all over the place. For example, you might want to learn why an area isn’t able to handle the input it’s getting with adequate throughput.

Or maybe there have been a number of accidents among a group of workers, and you want to observe any potential safety hazards or behaviors that might be contributing. For these examples, your mission for the walk might be to “improve throughput of station X” or “reduce injuries amongst team Y.”

Turning Observations Into Actionable Results

So you’ve done your pre-walk prep, you’ve gathered your observations, and now you’re all ready to streamline production and usher in a new era of efficiency… almost. Right now, you’re at a crucial junction where your efforts up to this point could be a catalyst of change or all for nothing.

The first thing you need to do is enlist a few minds in addition to your own to sift through your observations and decide what kinds of changes need to be made (and would have the most impact on your goals).

Once you’ve sussed out a few ideas, you need to turn these into actionable plans with specific roles. Even if you relay your concerns or even findings to your workers, it is your job to provide a path to improvement and the exact steps to do so, not theirs.

Any plan you create should not only be clear and easy to follow, but should lay out specific changes for specific teams or team members. Finally, any action plans you create should be publicly displayed and laid out in a way that serves as an easy reminder to workers as to what is expected of them going forward.

So there you have it, the pre- and post- of Gemba walks; now get out there and use ’em!