Blog Archives

Lean for Small Businesses

If you have followed my blog for awhile you know that my wife started a hand-poured soap and bath and body business a few years ago.  One of her suppliers sends out a monthly newsletter with different kinds of articles: how to make new products, different recipes and in the most recent newsletter an article on lean for the small business.

Though turning to “lean” operation processes may sound like a complicated undertaking best left to large corporations, small businesses are actually ideally equipped to leverage the advantages of a lean business model.

The author is correct.  Being a small business makes it easier to create change more quickly as long as you are dedicated to it.

There are some good points in the article and some that are not even close.  I know lean is a the en vogue thing to discuss but that doesn’t mean everything is always a good point of view.  Better to have it mentioned and start a discussion though.

Some of the good.

You probably spend a lot of time in a day communicating with your clients, vendors, and staff. But have you ever taken a close look at why you have so many of those conversations? If the topics of your business conversations tend to involve a lot of the same questions, standardizing your operations could present a huge opportunity to save time, and eliminate such redundancies. Take detailed notes of the email and phone conversations

…get creative about how you might develop a standardized system for addressing such recurring issues. If customers tend to email or instant chat with similar questions, develop various email templates that you can send to them in a matter of seconds could prove a real time saver. Better yet, incorporate clear language onto your website that answers the questions so they donʼt even have to contact you.

I am more of the thought about trying to get to the root cause and better incorporate the clear language onto your website.  This is a clear way to help eliminate waste and create more time to serving your customers specific needs.

Dave Kerpin suggests that you can improve the efficiency of every [meeting] (and save 900 hours a year) with a simple shift: Donʼt end the discussion until everyone clearly understands their next steps, and you actually begin your own. Kerpin insists this eliminates the odds that miscommunication and confusion linger (which will only lead to further conversation), and reduces the amount of time youʼll spend trying to fi gure out how you need to move forward.

Dave is talking about getting high agreement on what will be done and how it will be done.  This is one of the core lean principles.  He is right.  It helps reduce confusion and communication that comes later from it so the work can be done more quickly.

Some of the not so good.

To adopt the common principles of lean management known as the 5 sʼs (Sort, Straighten, Sweep, Standardize, and Sustain), start by taking a look at your business routine…

This is a smaller issue in that 5S isn’t really a principle but more of a concept or tool to help highlight quickly when something is abnormal.  The author never mentions this.  Just that it can help “clean up” and organize your routine.

This is the one comment that truly gives me heartburn.  It shows the engrained misunderstanding of economies of scale.

If you find yourself ordering inventory frequently, could you forecast more appropriately, to reduce the frequency and possibly, realize cost savings from placing one larger order?

Oh where to start with this one.  First off, you can’t forecast “more appropriately”.  Overcomplicated MRP systems have shown that repeatedly. If you are a small business and growing this is no way to forecast more appropriately.  Understand your lead times and put in a visual reordering system that will trigger with enough time to get your orders in.  You may need to adjust over time as you grow, but it is more efficient and cost effective.

More importantly, don’t just order in bulk to get savings.  This is not a smart move.  You need to understand what your demand is, how much space you have, how much materials cost and how long the inventory would sit around.  If you order a larger quantity to get the savings but it takes 8 months to go through the inventory, you have tied up your cash so you can use it to grow in another area.  As a small business, cash flow is extremely important.  Another factor is the space you have.  If the material is going to take up a lot of space that you don’t have, it is better to not have it spilling over in your work area.  This is something to consider the long term savings in space and cash availability versus the immediate savings of a one time buy.

It was good to see lean talked about in a different arena besides manufacturing.  The message may not always be perfect but it is better to start the conversation than not have it at all.

Lean In Project Management

Like so many that started learning and implementing lean in the late 1990s/early 2000s, I started applying lean principles and concepts in manufacturing.  I spent nearly 15 years applying lean thinking in a manufacturing environment.  I absolutely loved seeing the immediate change in material flow or the feedback from operators that someone listened to them and they were able to make things better.

It is no secret.  A manufacturing environment is a tangible environment to see the improvements and get quicker feedback back on how you are applying lean thinking because of the immediate visual results.

A couple of years ago, I moved from the manufacturing environment to the office/project management environment.  This was quite a change and one I looked at as a new challenge.  I took it on.  I have worked with product development and retail management teams.  Not even thinking twice as to what I was doing…until recently.

This summer I took on the role of project manager.  I am managing the deployment of technology to our retail environments.  The changes are not as immediate and not as visual as a manufacturing environment.  After a while, I questioned whether I was still applying lean principles to my work.  Finally, I took a step back to have a serious reflection and what I discovered is my previous 15+ years have engrained the thinking and principles without realizing it.

I have been directly observing the work as activities, connections and flows by sitting with the teams developing and testing the technology.  I see how the work and how the product works.  I have gone to a few retail stores to see the technology being used so I can bring those observations back to the team.  I also went to other retail stores using similar technology and talked with the store managers about what is working and what isn’t working for them.

The principle of systematic problem solving comes to light with using visual boards to status the project and highlight the problems that need to be worked on in the next 24-48 hrs.  We are trying to surface the problems quickly, so they can be resolved.  We have broken the issues down into categories to know which are the highest priority.

Systematic waste elimination comes from defining new processes that will continue once the project is launched.  We are working to improve and make them as efficient as we know how today.

Each day at standup, we are establishing high agreement on what we are going to be working on and how we will go about working on it.  This establishes clear ownership of the work and an expected due date.

Finally, we are learning about the product, the technology and our processes with every iteration.  Getting feedback incorporated into the product as quickly as possible.

The reflection helped me understand how I am using the lean principles everyday even if it is not in a tangible manufacturing environment.

How about you?  In what type of environment are you using the lean principles?

Making Work Agreements Visual

Whenever doing work with another group or person, it is very important that everyone has agreement with what needs to be done and how it will be done.  Discussions happen between the parties and everyone seems to agree.  Then people go off and do the work and the next time the two parties meet there are odd looks and comments about that was not what the other person meant.

Recently, I wrote about the benefits of writing an A3 around problem solving.  When agreeing to what work will be done and who will do it, writing it down in an A3 format is very beneficial also.  The A3 can help foster a discussion about what was really meant.  Seeing the thoughts on paper in text or drawings makes it easier to communicate.

Another benefit I have found, is when there are disagreements and the thoughts are written on paper the focus seems to be on the content and not the person.  It doesn’t completely eliminate somebody wanting to attack a person and become defensive, but it does help to reduce the likely hood of this happening.

The more people can communicate verbally using a written format, such as an A3, to enhance the discussion the easier it will be for people to agree on what needs to be done and how it will be done.  And the next time the groups meet, the better chance of their being no misunderstanding as to the work that was done.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,393 other followers