How to Engage the Workforce in Lean Thinking

by | April 20, 2015

Blog written by Asbury Lockett, a business advisor with the Small Business Development Center at Highline College.

Lean Thinking starts with the premise that everything that any of us want to accomplish (both at work and outside of work) is a process. Everything that gets done is a series of steps. Some steps take us closer to achieving the goal of the process. Other steps don’t. The overarching theme is that the quest for improvement never ends—continuous improvement is the mantra.

The nice thing about lean thinking is that everyone can participate. It doesn’t require knowledge of statistical methods or any other specialized skill. It just requires that all participants have (1) a common goal, (2) a common vocabulary, and (3) common sense.

What is the Goal?
To reach a goal, everyone on the team needs to have the same objective. Seems simple enough, but a clear objective is not always shared by everyone doing the work. For instance, at a grocery store, there may be 10 checkers. If you were to ask each of them the main objective of their job, one may say to get the person rung up and out the door as quickly as possible. Another may say making sure the customer has been able to find everything they were looking for. Another may say making customers feel that they are appreciated. Are any of these “wrong”? Definitely not. However, there needs to be agreement about what takes priority. With company leadership providing guidance, the team of employees needs to come to a meeting of the minds regarding exactly what the desired outcome of a particular process is. The desired outcome must be objectively measurable so there is no question as to whether the process is becoming better.

A Common Vocabulary- the Concept of “Waste”
Once the process objective is clear, any step in that process that does not take you closer to that goal is defined as waste. Wasteful activities have nothing to do with how hard someone is working or how important the work they are performing is. For example, someone can spend a great amount of effort moving papers from one location to another. The person doing this work can be very industrious, however, the activity is wasteful. Similarly, someone who is inspecting a work product for errors is insuring that the customer gets a quality product. While his work is important, it is still waste.

Lean Thinking requires that we separate the person doing the process step from the work that the person is performing. If this is not clearly differentiated, the person performing the wasteful activity can get defensive and explain why what they are doing is “important work”.

An Important Side Note– No Reductions in Workforce Can EVER be Attributed to Lean Thinking
Lean requires that the workforce come together, identify waste, and then figure out how to eliminate the waste. By definition, transportation is waste.–moving product, paper, or even electronic information from one place to another does not add any value to the process. Someone in the organization may quickly realize she spends more than 80% of her working time moving things around. If she thinks that there is any chance of her losing her job by raising her hand and explaining that most of what she does is “waste” , the probability of this person suggesting ways of eliminating waste goes to zero. A subtle, but often overlooked point is that Lean can only thrive in an atmosphere of trust. If someone involved in a process feels that something they say may be later used against them in a negative way, they will just stay silent, or even worse, intentionally send the “waste hunters” in a different direction which may end up yielding little, if any, improvement to the overall process.

Using Common Sense
Once understood, lean thinking is pretty intuitive. In nearly all processes, there are activities that consume time but don’t take the process any closer to completion.

Improving processes through lean thinking involves opening up to the possibilities of doing things differently because the old way just doesn’t make sense. It encourages justifying each process step by asking “why” when there are aspects of the process that seem questionable. Why does Sue enter all this customer data on one screen, then later enter the exact same information on another screen? Couldn’t the information be automatically transferred to the second screen to save time and decrease the possibility of errors? Maybe there is a good reason why this is done that the employee just doesn’t know. By providing a safe environment to ask the question, at least the employee would then understand why what has seemed like a wasted step needs to occur.

Lean thinking is a great way to get the entire workforce focused on how to make the business even better. When done correctly, it provides an ongoing forum for the suggestions of those employees closest to the process to be heard and acted upon. As process waste is reduced, employees develop a greater sense of pride in knowing that the activities they perform can be directly traced to increased customer or client satisfaction.

Happy customers and happy employees = Happy owners. In the world of business, it doesn’t get any better than that!