By Kim M. Kerr, CEO, TyphoonDATA
I am a firm believer and activist for Lean Thinking in any business I have worked in since the day I heard of the simple, commonsense approach to the workplace improvement process. This includes the Screening and Data businesses. Finding or creating a value stream for customers or clients has become a passion for me. I had the opportunity to work with some great companies in the data and screening world that have embraced this approach to management and have seen dramatic improvements in the work environment, culture, and top and bottom lines of businesses of all shapes and sizes. This process is an integral part of the culture at my current company.
I came from an investigative and event security background working for AT&T for many years performing internal investigations, event security including the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, leaving in 1998 after another “reengineering” that resulted in 15,000 managers getting the option for a benefit and retirement “buy out”. I had seen literally years of downsizings and reengineering projects while managers struggled to catch a falling knife. I watched thousands of workers either get laid off or reorganized into other jobs or departments in an attempt to find a level that could be supported by the customers.
What finally happened a few years after my departure was a series of mergers, sell offs and eventually a sale of AT&T to one of the Regional Telco’s. The AT&T trademark, a brand known round the world, was garnered by this new business that is now a strong player in the cellular and business communications market. It survived by being cut to ribbons over time. The old AT&T died a death of a thousand cuts.
I have two family members who work in the manufacturing industry. One is an Operations Manager for a packaging company; the other is an HR Manager for a bedding firm. I was the Vice President and General Manager for LexisNexis Screening Solutions at the time and as I listen to those two use strange Japanese terms like “Gemba”, “Kaizen” and “Muda”, I began to wonder if Lean Principles would work in the screening and data business. After some research I started putting this process in front of my Directors. The results were incredible and the Principles of Lean are now an integral part of the DNA of any company I lead.
The topic is much too big to be covered in an overview article but I can give you some valuable concepts to think about. First of all I used the term “big” not complicated. Understanding the value your customer needs and wants from your products and services needs to be understood, articulated and embraced by all of your employees from the CEO to the rank and file. This is defined as the “Value Stream”, a river of value that flows to your customers.
Along the stream is Muda or waste. As an example, I was at a client location and saw employees standing around the copier. They were creating copies of information to be used in the daily work. I then noticed that all the work stations had two screens but the line was forming from a subset of the workers. I asked my client what they did and he responded that they were involved in a value stream that fed into the screening report for several key clients. It was a process outside the normal workflow.
I exclaimed, “Muda” to my client pointing at the copier clutch. We looked at the wasted time of these employees standing by a copier. The employees used that as a high tech water cooler to discuss last night’s game and where they were going after work. So by just walking around the workplace or “Gemba” a trained observer saw a process improvement or “Kaizen” opportunity that had been gradually embraced as “just part of the process”.
The ultimate solutions was to review these processes in detail and the solutions which required a queuing change in the operations software and installing a third screen at two workstations, reassignment of two employees to other pressing processes. In other words the value was doubled and waste was halved.
So here is my simple recommendation: Buy a couple of books, Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation by Womack, James P. and Jones, Daniel T. (Nov 23, 2010); and Gemba Kaizen: A Commonsense Approach to a Continuous Improvement Strategy 2/E by Masaaki Imai (May 23, 2012). These books have a good framework for instituting Lean thinking into your business.
Have a meeting with your directors or lead managers and follow a few simple steps:
1) Walk around the Workplace or “Gemba” and observe your employees. Look at things like the workstation set up, which teams interact with which teams, use of ancillary devices like copiers or email processes.
2) Ask your key managers what are the top three problems they spend most of their time on during the day? Ask all the leaders to describe the issue.
3) Pick one based on the biggest impact to one of the work groups.
4) Break it into steps or Kaizen the process. If need be, bring a “doer” into the discussion.
5) Develop a theory of how the process could be changed and how the process can be measured. If it can’t be measured, how can you know if you are successful?
6) What is the investment in the change? – Development time, Project Management, outside resources.
7) Make the changes. Measure your success.
8) Wash, rinse, repeat…
I also recommend instituting an accountability board in all your operations managers’ offices. What is due in the next 24 hours? Who is responsible and what is the deliverable? I call this, “Moving the Ball”.
If you have a process you like, great! But if you can’t seem to get your margins to grow or you are continually adding people during the good times and laying off others in the slow times, you may be a victim of the reengineering mind game. Lean Thinking is anything but that.
There are companies or organizations Lean Thinking will NOT work. It is in companies where the top leadership believes that all real good ideas and processes emanate from the top. The Lean ship will sink on the sharp rocks of EGO surrounding the crystal tower of pure thought and reason.
Kim can be reached at KKerr@typhoondata.com