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

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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

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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.

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