Lean Leadership – The importance of having a clear target vision for your lean transformation.

One of the key pitfalls that companies fall into as they embark on a lean transformation is failing to establish a clear vision of what lean will look like when implemented in their business.

Often, company leaders will head out on a lean tour and come back inspired with a strong goal of ‘we want what they have’. They then embark on a lean transformation journey with a vision of ‘becoming lean’.

Unfortunately, this rarely works. Taking this approach will often result in lean transformations that start with tools. ‘Let’s put in a Kanban system” or “doing 5S will make us lean.’ Ultimately, tool based implementations rarely succeed, unless the company has specifically selected a tool that is addressing a critical issue. Even in those cases, the company will often implement only one aspect of lean, see some good results but miss all the other benefits of working with an overall improvement philosophy.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and place for using Toyota’s tools as long as we remember that these are Toyota’s tools that they developed for their own specific challenges, environment and culture. The problem with the tool based approach is that tools alone can only take us so far. We also end up in a situation where we believe that any improvement must be driving us towards our goal of becoming lean.

In his studies of the Toyota Production system Mike Rother, the author of Toyota Kata, identified that Toyota use a combined practice of scientific thinking and deliberate practice to move themselves towards a specific target condition.

Toyota know that waste elimination is the outcome of their improvement journey, not the goal. They have clearly identified the target conditions they require. They develop these through their Hoshin Kanri process and everyone in the company understands the strategic goals of the company and how their own role ties into this. This means that when improvement opportunities are identified, they are assessed against how they will help to achieve the target vision. Improvements are prioritised to first support the strategic direction above all else. This is how Toyota can respond to issues and improve as rapidly as they do.

Leaders must have a clear vision of what lean looks like in the organisation. In our company, the long term operational vision is “What we sell today, we make tomorrow.” Everything that we are doing to improve our processes is guided by this vision. We know that we can’t achieve our vision if we don’t improve our flow. We must minimise our work in process and ensure that quality issues are at a minimum. We analyse our constraint processes and focus on getting the whole production process and supply chain to function at the same pace as much as possible.

A few years ago, we sat down and made a four year plan for our lean transformation. We forecast future sales, recorded leadtimes and set goals to achieve year on year. We even noted down the characteristics that our system might have at each stage of our transformation. Things like: less batch production, shorter set up times, more cross-skilling. We didn’t set any goals like ‘implement kanban system’ or ‘reduce inventory by 40%.’ Our goals were more around ‘have less products between process stages’ and ‘find a way to make only one day’s production per day.’ We identified required improvements by making lists of all the obstacles that were in the way of achieving our goals. We put aside non essential big projects to concentrate on achieving a goal of one day’s production through each process stage and one day between stages.

Over two years our production lead time through the focus area reduced from 15 days to 5 days. We have even exceeded some of our targets with less than one day between stages. Over those two years, each major improvement project that we have done has individually moved us further towards the achievement of our ultimate vision. Each completed improvement forms another section of the bridge from here to there.

Our company has been on the lean journey for a lot longer than a few years and everyone who works here knows about lean and continuous improvement. Like a lot of companies, our lean journey has had fits and starts, periods of great progress and periods of slow or no progress. The difference in the last few years has been one very specific thing. We have a target vision and we are moving deliberately towards it.

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Does your team have a clear vision of where lean will take you? What challenges have you faced keeping your lean journey on track. Leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you.

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