Lean management – first steps

If your business has not yet embraced the principles of lean management, it is time it did.

Perhaps you thought it applied only to manufacturing industry and it is true that the fundamentals were formulated in the 1970s by Japanese motor manufacturers Toyota. Initially, their new methods were designed to reduce waste, which led to increased efficiency and quality. The standards and terminology have evolved, but the basics are now  familiar to a wide range of organisations, including local councils, banks, public utilities and hospitals.

I first came across these principles when I was, for a short time, a shift production manager in a print plant in 1993. Our progressive and enlightened MD (yes, really) committed us to achieving what was then BS5750, a national quality standard based around Ministry of Defence requirements and terminology. The main reason many businesses sought this accreditation was merely to qualify as recognised potential suppliers to the MoD. They in turn set this benchmark for their own suppliers, so businesses thoughout the production chain passed this requirement upstream. It is worth noting that this demand was driven by customers.

There was huge cultural inertia throughout our company. Production was a closed shop of 100-plus, with three different union chapels: NGA for the studio and the skilled machine minders, and separate chapels for SOGAT men and women. They tended to squabble with each other much more than with the management, but it still made an uphill struggle for any innovation that impacted on custom and practice.

In practical terms, staff were now required to account for their output, to sign and label their pallets of work and to put them in prescribed areas. We made A3-size labels in different colours, so anyone could see at a glance whether work was ‘conforming’ or ‘non-conforming’ (good or bad), and established a quarantine area for anything non-conforming, to remove it from the workflow while it awaited investigation.

Part of the resistance from the shop floor was because these new procedures exposed poor workmanship and made individuals accountable. They also put a stop to some operators working flat out at the start of the week, hiding part of their output each shift in a far corner, then allocating it to their last shift so they could go home early whilst a colleague clocked them out (one shift was unmanaged).

As soon as we had quality checks and a proper audit trail from goods-inwards to goods-outwards, we were able for the first time to identify the sources of problems with supplies, machines, processes and staff training issues. Non-conforming stock was removed from the workflow immediately, so it could be rectified or replaced. Previously, an error on a single sheet of a 32-page document might not come to light until job completion, which meant repeating the whole job from scratch. Not only would this waste a lot of time and money, but slotting the job back into the front of the production schedule would have a negative impact on other jobs in the queue.

It was interesting to see skilled printers having to treat the finishing department as their customers, having spent their entire working lives treating them as second-class citizens. It was great to see the birth of a new culture that encouraged co-operation and the solution of long-standing problems. Best of all, once sceptics could see real benefits, they came on board to complete a virtuous circle of improvement.

You might not run a factory, but work still flows through your business and the same principles should apply. In my next blog, I will list the top lessons you can take from lean management principles.

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