Using Lean Principles to Move Forward in the New Normal

December 8, 2020 | Shannon Shoemaker

Starting in the 1930s, Toyota revolutionized production using lean principles and has since become the world’s most successful car manufacturer. But lean principles aren’t confined to manufacturing; today, industries from healthcare to fintech embrace the lean principle of continuous improvement.

“Manufacturing has found a lot of opportunities within it because things are so repetitive,” says Michelle Waite, Director of Continuous Improvement at Versiti and Adjunct Professor teaching applied lean Six Sigma at Marquette University. “There are repetitive practices that occur in transactional environments, but you likely don’t see them, which makes the opportunity for hidden waste abundant.”

Applying lean principles makes those processes visible so organizations can streamline their flow to consistently score wins, even in today’s volatile economic climate. Here’s how to create value for both your customers and your workforce by incorporating lean principles at your organization.


Standardize Processes to Establish a Baseline

One of the lean method’s core principles is creating value through continuous improvement. But before you can improve your processes, you need to establish your baseline. Apply lean techniques to make your processes more visible, such as the Gemba walk, where leaders talk with and learn from front-line employees. “By having that constant conversation with your customers and your employees, you’ll be able to uncover what you need to resolve,” Waite says.

To establish your baseline, evaluate your processes across departments. What does performance management look like across the organization, for example? Ask your employees what they need from performance management, like quarterly check-ins, and standardize protocols across the organization so you can begin to establish metrics and set goals for improvement.


Adhere to the Scientific Method

Lean methodology embraces a scientific, experimental approach to continuous improvement. Once you’ve established baseline processes and metrics, ask front-line workers what pain points they are experiencing or have heard from clients and customers. “Try to understand the problem, usually through asking the front-line staff what problems they are trying to solve,” says Paul Pejsa, Director at Catalysis. Leaders should work alongside employees to understand problems and come up with solutions.

In a volatile environment, these problems will change frequently. Go through rapid learning cycles with small, quick experiments in a single team or department. Measured against your baseline, did the change deliver more value? If solutions are effective, implement them on a larger scale. And when they aren’t, celebrate and explore your failures, too. “We should document what we learned,” Pejsa says. “That can help a business thrive in the new normal.”


Foster a Principle-Based Management System

Lean is more than a set of tools: It’s a comprehensive, principle-based management system. One important lean principle is respect for the individual, Pejsa says. Lean principles state that value is created on the front lines rather than in the C-suite. The purpose of the Gemba walk is for leaders to see actual work processes to help solve problems and remove continuous improvement barriers.

For lean principles to be most effective, leaders must embrace servant leadership over top-down authority. Managers need to approach front-line workers with humility and a willingness to learn from them. “Servant leadership is all about how you behave as a leader,” Pejsa says. “If you hope to make this transformation of your business, it’s not work that you can delegate.”

Lean principles help you pinpoint value creation in your organization. Even during times of uncertainty and turmoil, you can continue to create through process improvement. Respecting and learning from front-line workers establishes a baseline for change so that your organization can continuously improve your customers’ and clients’ experiences.

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