Five Practical Tips for Making Lean Part of the Everyday

Is reacting really a strategy?

Sure, we’re predisposed to react to problems rather than to anticipate and plan for them.

But what if your warehouse operation—and your employees—was programmed to be proactive? To have a Lean mind-set not only when challenges arise but also when things are going well?

Although not all operational challenges can be predicted, embracing a Lean culture built upon a 5S methodology is crucial to being better prepared to make the necessary changes, eliminating waste, and maximizing efficiency—all areas of focus in synchronous manufacturing-support operations.

The standard drill in these environments is to address bottlenecks, inefficient processes, inadequate space utilization, and other problems with a reactive infusion of continuous improvement.

But this ad hoc approach ignores a bigger issue: The damage—a drop in productivity, higher operating costs, reduced quality, jeopardized schedules, or disruption to the entire supply chain—has already been done.

With so much at stake, you can’t afford to “reboot” every time there’s an issue. It’s more critical than ever to be Lean first all the time.

Here are five under-the-radar tips for solidifying a Lean culture throughout your warehouse operation.

  1. Engage your workforce. The best ideas for improving warehouse operations and processes come from the people who do the work every day. They see and experience things that might not be so evident to others, and therefore are in the best position to identify waste, recommend changes, and implement improvements. Tap into those insights by scheduling weekly half-hour meetings or posting whiteboards in visible locations so employees can jot down issues or ideas for improvement. You can even formalize things by establishing “Lean teams” or “Lean champions” that focus exclusively on eliminating waste and provide support in the planning, resourcing, implementation, and follow-up accountability for implementation.
  2. Examine the waste stream. Waste is work that adds no value to a product or service. Going by that common definition, chances are there’s waste in your warehouse operation. Turn the tables on your waste stream and convert it to a value stream. Deploy value stream mapping to identify where waste is festering and create and implement a future state that emphasizes value.
  3. Train. Your most valuable assets are your employees. Can they be doing more, though? What’s their level of job satisfaction? Maximize their value through cross-training. If a process is improved, they will likely have time to take on higher-level work. Cross-training provides flexibility, allowing employees to be moved around to cover for breaks, vacations, and illnesses. It also allows leaders to adjust staffing when there are shifts in demand. Cross-training also improves job satisfaction by continually challenging employees with new jobs.

    Finally, cross-training encourages sharing and development of best practices. Whenever someone new rotates through a position, they have a fresh set of eyes on it, bringing a different perspective to facilitate the improvement process.
  4. Measure, assess, adjust. It’s a truism that can never be debunked: You can’t manage what you don’t measure. Critical to the success of Lean efforts, tracking and measuring new processes will reveal what’s working and what’s not; who’s flourishing in a new role and who needs coaching.

    Record results and make them easily accessible. If adjustments need to be made, communicate to those involved and resume the measurement-assessment-adjustment cycle. Remember, the key word in “continuous improvement” is “continuous.
  5. Keep the momentum. If change isn’t embraced initially, don’t get discouraged. Encourage your employees to stay the course. Lean is a team effort, a journey that often takes time to cultivate. Once you and your employees start experiencing its benefits, Lean won’t seem like a “project”—it’ll seem like it should always be there.

Lean isn’t an “after the fact” quick-fix tool that is used only when you need it.

Lean is continuous and relies on creativity and a commitment from management through every employee to make it a way of business.

By making it an ongoing strategy—part of your everyday “lineup”—Lean will improve people, processes, and systems; help employees grow professionally and be more invested in their jobs; improve quality; drive out waste; and provide value for customers.

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