Lean processes are the latest diet craze in the world of quality control! Lean is a quality control technique you can use to identify and eliminate the flab in your company's processes. The "flab" is all the dead weight carried by a process without adding any value. The customer doesn't want to pay for dead weight, so why should you?

Most company processes are wasteful in terms of time and materials, which often results in poorer quality to the customer — a concern for all businesses. Lean focuses on customer satisfaction and cost reduction. Proponents of the technique believe that every step in a process is an opportunity to make a mistake — to create a quality problem, in other words. The fewer steps you have in a process, the fewer chances for error you create and the better the quality in your final product or service.

You can apply the Lean techniques in the following sections to all types of processes and in environments ranging from offices, to hospitals, to factories. In most cases, applying Lean concepts doesn't require an increase in capital costs — it simply reassigns people to more productive purposes. And, oh yes, Lean processes are much cheaper to operate.

Value Stream Mapping

People think in images, not in words, so giving them a picture of how something is done is often better than telling them about a process. After all, the quote is "Show me the money!" not "Tell me about the money!"

Value Stream Mapping visually describes a production process in order to help workers locate waste within it. Waste is any activity that doesn't add value for the customer. Typically, eliminating waste involves reducing the amount of inventory sitting around and shortening the time it takes to deliver a product or service to the customer upon its order.

The 5S method

Work areas evolve along with the processes they support. As your organization implements new actions and tools, you must find a place for them "somewhere." Over time, clutter can slowly build as piles of excess materials or tools grow and gradually gum up the smooth flow of work.

The 5S method is an essential tool for any quality initiative that seeks to clear up the flow of work. Five Ss describe five Japanese attributes required for a clean workplace:

  • Seiri (organization)
  • Seiton (neatness)
  • Seiso (cleaning)
  • Seiketsu (standardization)
  • Shitsuke (discipline)

Removing all the clutter from a process eliminates hidden inventories, frees floor space for productive use, improves the flow of materials through the workplace, reduces walk time, and shakes out unnecessary items for reuse elsewhere or landfill designation.

Rapid Improvement Events

No one knows a process like the workers who touch it every day. They know how the work should flow, they can identify obstacles that slow everyone down, and they deal with problems that never seem to go away. So, why not tap this source of institutional knowledge and turn it loose to fix the problems that vex workers day in and day out?

A Rapid Improvement Event (RIE) is an intensive process-improvement activity, where over a few days a company's workers bone up on Lean techniques and rebuild their processes to incorporate its principles. The workers take apart their work areas, rearrange items, and reassemble the spaces for more efficient work. The improvements are immediate, and the workers have ownership of the process and feel motivated to further refine it.

Lean Materials and Kanban

A company's materials are essential for the organization to work well, but they also tie up a large part of a company's capital. And while the company does its business year in and year out, its materials are stolen, damaged, rotting, corroding, and losing value in many other ways.

A key part of the Lean approach is to minimize the amount of materials (both incoming and finished goods) you have sitting around in your facility. (What do you know? This minimization is called Lean Materials.) Excess materials hide problems with purchasing, work scheduling, scrap rates, and so on. Eliminating these excess materials provides an immediate financial benefit to your company — if you eliminate correctly.

You don't want to eliminate so thoroughly that you cause shortages. One method you can use to fix the problem of excess materials without causing shortages is Kanban. Kanban is a materials system controlled by the customer. When a consumer buys an item, action cascades back up the production line to make one more of that item.