Lean is not new. Many have — in one way or another — been confronted with the Lean philosophy, its tools and its potentially significant results. Maybe you yourself as well have read a book, attended a conference, or maybe even enjoyed training. And more and more have actually started with Lean initiatives in a pilot area or even across their whole business.
In the social media and professional sites and journals as well, Lean gets more and more attention. When you read many of the cases, you get the impression that there’s quite some sorting, setting in order, shining, standardizing and sustaining going on in our workplaces nowadays. Apparently we are creating more and more clean and organized work areas and offices. But what, in fact, is the essence of all this? Why all the labels and markings on the floor?
Others are busy documenting their work procedures. Work areas are filled with pictures and visuals all together sometimes more than the size of wall paper. It sometimes looks like an over-decorated Christmas tree. There are more visuals than actual work space. So what’s the idea? Why the Christmas trees?
Unfortunately, may organizations get stuck at this level of thinking. They send their employees to trainings, they apply the tools, but have great difficulty in sustaining the application of the tools. They look at Lean as if it were something for the shop floor by the shop floor; to get a one-off improvement in their manufacturing or assembly processes. But something essential is often missing: the underlying management philosophy. The labels, markings and visuals are only symptoms of Lean; symptoms of the management philosophy that Lean is.
The management philosophy behind Lean is based upon the principle of “knowing, seeing, reacting”: (a) together knowing what the best way is to organize and perform the work, (b) seeing when the work is not performed according to the best way defined, and (c) properly and consistently reacting to situations that are detected by applying (a) and (b).
The lines drawn on the shop floor are not there because they make the work place appear more organized and neat. These lines are there to indicate what the team has jointly defined as their best way to organize their work area. Even more, it is a visualization of an agreement between team members, team leaders, shifts and managers. As such it also serves as a reference for all to actually co-manage work. The visuals don’t only exist to define, organize, share and communicate. As if most workers don’t know their work and work area (although I must admit, the visualization does help in consensus building in case of disagreement). No, the visualization exists to enable management at all levels to react, learn and support in case of spotted deviations from the best way. No wonder therefore that Lean puts so much attention on go-and-see management by leaders that are present on the shop floor. Then it is there where one can spot instantaneously where productivity is leaking away and quality is lost.
As mentioned, the visualization enables everyone to manage the work. Visual management makes it possible for teams to truly become autonomous, take the proper decisions and can be responsible for performance. Striving for this type of autonomy is essential in the enabling continual improvement across the organization: by everyone, everywhere, everyday. To show off only the visual symptoms of Lean, but not the accompanying behavior, therefore is a signal that the organization has not yet truly embraced Lean thinking and doing.
So the next time you are planning to draw some more lines on the shop floor, don’t forget to also set the course for yourself and your management; then it is only through the application of the management philosophy that you will be able to reap the benefits promised by Lean.