Whether or not your organization employs lean processes, chances are you have experienced them. Maybe you have seen the power of lean from drastically reduced wait times in healthcare, to significantly faster manufacturing lead times, to improved service delivery times and many other positive impacts.
Yet, despite its widespread use and quick, impressive results, lean has experienced mixed success across organizations. Anecdotal information, experts and surveys estimate as few as 2% of organizations are happy with results.
You may have experienced pockets of success and quick wins yourself, but not fully achieved the power of lean across your organization. What is different about those that succeed? What characteristics define a truly “lean” organization? How lean is your organization?
Most organizations can successfully learn and even apply lean tools. There are, however, four underestimated characteristics of truly lean organizations that separate them from everyone else. Usually if these traits exist, everything else is being done well and the organization is successfully applying lean.
These characteristics can also be applied to almost any improvement initiative. Successful lean organizations use lean to grow their business, not just cut costs. Does your organization just focus on cost-cutting and what is convenient, or also focus lean on what is good for the customer and growing business?
Successful lean organizations focus lean on right things, not everything. Does your organization realize lean is not about tools and methods, but why and where they are applied? Is it understood lean can’t succeed if applied to wrong strategy or no strategy?
Successful lean organizations sustain lean over the long-term, not just gain short-term impacts. Does your organization create a culture to sustain lean and lean improvements, even in the midst of changes? Does your organization continue to implement new lean improvements, particularly after the “low hanging fruit” and quick impacts are gone?
Successful lean organizations realize power of small ideas. Are all employees empowered every day to recognize and make “small” improvements, creating a culture of improvement as a result?
Of the four, the most overlooked, underrated and underutilized characteristic is tapping into the power of many employees implementing many small ideas.
In fact, the smaller the ideas implemented, the better. This runs counter to the “home run” mentality where organizations focus on rapid, high impact Kaizen events or other team-based projects. With this mentality, managers and employees ignore small ideas, considering them trivial.
Truly successful lean organizations realize you can score lots of runs with bunts and singles as well. They realize all employees need to bat and have potential to score runs, not just a select few.
These organizations receive dozens or even hundreds of improvement ideas per employee per year with a 70-90 percent implementation rate. Although not the goal, these organizations are surprised to find they may have as much as five times the impact from small ideas compared to major improvements.
Over the years, different names have been used describing these programs such as Kaizen (not kaizen events), Toyota Kata, Idea Driven Organizations and others. No two systems are the same, each tailored to what works for a particular organization or even work area.
These small idea systems are not traditional suggestion systems where employees come up with ideas for management to implement. In traditional systems, managers get disappointed with the lack of “big ideas,” and employees become frustrated with the “black hole” effect. “Small” idea systems are different.
Unlike traditional suggestions systems, small ideas are frequently implemented by the employee(s) who came up with the ideas, after approval from a supervisor and possibly co-workers. Small ideas are easier to generate than big ideas.
They are low risk to try and get approved and implemented quickly. Small ideas are even critical to making “big” ideas and innovations work. Most importantly, as a culture of change and improvement becomes the norm, employees feel more empowered and become more accepting of other smaller or, even, bigger changes.
Greenville Technical College is beginning to recognize the power of small ideas in a pilot program just started in the Corporate and Career Development Division. One of first ideas replaced a fancy, more expensive folder with color-coded ones, $2.25 cheaper, while maintaining quality and improving efficiency.
In a few minutes, one employee shared a small idea that helped another employee eliminate a recurring problem, solve a customer complaint and generate $10,000 worth of business.
How about your organization?
Would you rather be the team with a few home run hitters or the one where every team member helps drive in runs? Has your improvement program tapped into the power of small ideas?
The beauty is you don’t have to wait for your organization to get started. Pick one small idea and get started tomorrow at home or at work. Even if you have a big idea, try breaking it into many smaller ones. Start with what you can control. What are you waiting for? Experience the power. Start hitting those “small” bunts and singles and begin driving in runs.
Marco Luzzatti is a business and organization trainer, facilitator and program coordinator with the Corporate and Career Development Center of Greenville Technical College. He has 18 years of experience developing, marketing and providing services and training in various quality, Lean, Six Sigma, Lean Six Sigma, Problem Solving, Constraint Management, personal, leadership/ management, team, safety, experiential learning, process improvement and other programs.