“Lean thinking” within the distribution and manufacturing environments is a hot topic. Even hotter is the discussion about the need for “Lean Teams.” A few years ago, it was hard to find an article or book in the wholesale-distribution market on the subject of “Lean Thinking.” Today, more resources are available as distributors begin to wake up to the concepts long in play in manufacturing companies, starting with Toyota Motor's classic “Lean Organization” case study.

Lean Problem-Solving Teams

When I am working with clients in a Lean initiative, my clients are often at first skeptical about why Lean problem-solving teams are necessary. They ask me, “Aren't problems what I pay my managers to solve?” or, “How many people do I need to solve a problem?”

These questions often indicate that a company does not use a team approach to problem solving and continuous improvement. Sometimes, it's a matter of perceived urgency. Most other times it's a lack of understanding of the underlying principles that make teams work.

Lean Thinking focuses on processes: a series of steps or actions to produce a desired end — in other words, the way all work is done. A Lean problem-solving team's objective is to reduce or eliminate the obstacles and bottlenecks to improved performance. That's because in the process resides the solution. The top nine problems I find with processes at wholesale-distribution firms inside and outside of the electrical industry are:

  • People perform the same work differently.

  • Process problems don't get addressed, but symptoms do.

  • Breakdowns in handling occur between groups or levels.

  • Rework and inefficiencies occur because of too many “touches.”

  • A process can have a lower error rate than the people that execute the process, because someone may discover the error and fix it.

  • People problems occur.

  • Procedure and training is too complicated.

  • Supervision to assure adherence to the processes can't possibly be everywhere, and supervisors are often too far away from the work.

  • The folks closest to the work don't participate in solving the problem.

Management's vision and leadership

Senior management must first take a leadership role to develop and communicate the Lean objectives so they become understandable and measurable by all. This often includes objectives related to productivity and through-put; inventory reduction; order fill-rates; inventory accuracy; increased capacity; vendor and manufacturing lead-time reduction; and technology utilization.

The Lean Thinking and continuous improvement culture of the organization does not change on words alone — management must visibly support it. This is where Lean problem-solving teams come in. Organize your teams around processes and empower the process owners. Have them look at the processes in their areas and collect and analyze data to define the opportunities for improvement. Ask them to suggest and implement cost savings and productivity improvements. Make sure they know that they are empowered to continuously improve their own work processes that serve their customers, both inside and outside your company.

Collaboration

Collaboration and community are the two “social system” principles that can ensure the success of your teams. The willingness and ability of your employees to collaborate can yield dramatic breakthroughs in problem solving and innovation. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way. Old paradigms of work are hard to change, and work has in the past been just seen as information and power. Those lower in the pecking order at a company too often are not included. I see organizations attempt to implement teams but make the mistake of confining meaningful dialog to a few employees at the top of their organizations. Their wrong-headed philosophy often is, “We'll let them make recommendations, but we won't really give them any power.” There's no team concept in play here.

Community

A workplace is a community, with each person bringing knowledge, skills and behaviors to the whole. “Community” sounds like a soft word. But it has significant implications if you are searching for high-performance, where teams are responsible for the results of their process improvement focus, and they have the empowerment to make decisions about how they change their work. Leverage what they know. Teams and community are an underlying principle to be understood in a successful blending of Lean Thinking and the need for process ownership and team participation.

Lean Thinking education and training

The focus on continuous improvement and the drive to reduce the obstacles and bottlenecks to improvement can replace your current processes with Lean business practices that become routine in your organization as employees are trained in Lean concepts (a pre-requisite), develop problem-solving skills and then participate in the solutions.

Don't expect a two-day workshop that introduces Lean concepts to establish a new set of habits. Habits are changed over time with repeated practice, feedback and encouragement. It's a process in itself. I find that after an introductory workshop, it usually takes at least six months to establish a new set of habits to support continuous process improvement. A coach or facilitator is often of tremendous value during this development process.

No business is too small or too large for Lean Thinking. It's a mindset of continuous improvement and discipline. Lean can be an internal cultural revolution in your company with a focus on operational excellence.

The author is the principal of MCA Associates, Derby, Conn., a management consulting firm founded in 1986. MCA implements continuous improvement solutions focused on business process re-engineering, inventory and supply chain management, sales development and revenue generation, information systems and technology, organizational assessment and development, and succession planning. You can contact him by phone at (203) 732-0603 or by e-mail at hcoleman@mcaassociates.com. Visit his company's website at www.mcaassociates.com.