Stop Improving and Start Eliminating
I know the title will probably send a lot of lean thinkers into cardiac arrest. Typically, we talk about how companies need to stop eliminating people and start using them to improve the process. I want to take a look at this phrase from a different lens. I want to look at it from the continuous improvement process side. Traditionally, companies have looked at driving improvement by demanding people work harder or by making the value added steps faster. As lean thinkers, we want organizations to look at all the waste that is surrounding the process and eliminate it.
A typical process is comprised of several activities, some of which are value added and many that are not value added. A color coded gant chart might look something like the one below, where the orange blocks are the value added activities and grey blocks are the non-value added activities.
In my experience, the above chart represents the balance of value added to non-value activities most typically seen. For now, lets say that split is 20% of the overall process time is value added and 80% of the process time is non-value added. If I were to group all the value added activities to one side and the non-value added activities to the other side, I would get a chart like the one below.
Traditionally, continuous improvement has been centered on improving the value added steps. We are asked to improve these steps by 50%. For years, we have been driving to make this value added work as efficient as possible through the automation of work, speeding up presses and machines, and upgrading equipment. We have gotten so good at this; the next steps are to buy untested or overcomplicated technology or to ask our employees to work harder and faster. The first is can be very capital intensive while the second is free. Asking employees to work harder around processes with a lot of waste is not showing them the respect they deserve. As an organization we are directly violating the respect of people pillar of lean and in the end, we might only get a 10% overall process improvement. See chart below.
Lean looks at continuous improvement and the respect for people as equal and balanced parts of the equation. In doing so, this approach flips the traditional approach of continuous improvement and asks the question, “How can I eliminate the waste in the process?” Again, we are asked for a 50% improvement on these activities. By eliminating waste, instead of speeding up value added activities, we know have a 40% overall process improvement. See chart below.
Reducing the waste also shows a respect for the people involved in the work. The waste is what causes the headaches for employees during the day. It isn’t the value added activities like taking care of a patient or running a press. It is looking for tools and instruments needed, refilling out paperwork, or any other non-value added activity that distracts the employee from doing the value added work. When you involve the employee in eliminating these types of headaches, you are getting their engagement in the improvement process, making their job easier and less stressful and gaining a larger overall process improvement. It shows respect for the person doing the work as well as for the stakeholders that need improvements to maintain the appropriate cost levels.
Lean is not a zero sum equation where someone wins and someone loses. It is about everyone getting a positive sum on both sides. So we should stop improving value added activities and start eliminating waste.