It’s common for companies to hear about the great benefits Lean and Six Sigma can bring about in their organizations – they hear about the streamlining of processes and gained efficiency and productivity, as well as the cost reductions (rightly or wrongly), and want to look at how they can “do Lean”. However, the idea of “doing Lean” as if it is an activity to attach on existing operations is a wayward application of the ideologies and is reactive in nature. The key, instead, is to “be Lean” or “become more Lean”. Here is the argument and difference in “be Lean” vs. “do Lean”.
First, to refresh ourselves, what is Lean anyway? There are many permutations of the definition of Lean, but the commonalities of those definitions include meeting customer expectations, adding value, reducing waste/non-value-adding activities, “respect for people”, and utilizing input and expertise from all relevant parties and partners to achieve the optimal outcomes.
All processes follow the same very-simplified formula:
Process = [Value-Adding Activities] + [Non-Value-Adding Activities]
And the costs in each of those terms make the formula look like this:
Process Costs = [Value-Adding Activities Costs] + [Non-Value-Adding Activities Costs]
The costs incurred through adding value are like the “costs of doing business” – they are the costs associated with maximizing safety for all parties, building quality into the product or service, and delivering what the customer expects how they expect it. The value-adding elements of a process are the Lean elements.
The things that make our work un-Lean are those non-value-added activities – the failure to capitalize on the ideas of those experts actually using the processes in order to function better, our focus on cheap overseas manufacturing despite the long lead times and expensive transportation, our buildup of inventory because our inflexibility to react to customer expectations, and so forth.
Our processes are un-Lean because of the choices we have made, our focus on costs instead of revenues, and our inability to see how much our inefficiencies are costing us.
Those non-value-added activities that cost invested resources but don’t provide any value to us or the customers are like excess fat that can and should be trimmed.
This is why Arnold Schwarzenegger (from the 1970s/Mr. Universe days, not modern-day Arnold so much) is an excellent metaphor for being Lean. A perfectly Lean process contains everything you need and nothing you don’t. Arnold’s “process” is to demonstrate immense strength while having as little fat on his body as possible. He was as close to being perfectly Lean as possible, as shown by his Mr. Universe titles. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the essence of being Lean.
But is he also an example of “doing Lean”? He has to work every day on maintaining his lack of fat and his immense strength by cranking out the proper workouts at the gym. He has to monitor his food and caloric intake. It’s natural for his body to want to build up fat stores in his muscles and fibers, and he must work to “correct” those fat stores from existing.
So “doing Lean” is to correct what we are already doing ineffectively, to reduce the things we are doing improperly or unnecessarily, to reduce the non-value-adding activities.
However, “doing Lean” as a corrective measure is not as good as actually “being Lean” – “being as Lean as possible” is the end goal, while “doing Lean” implies the use of corrective actions to fix what we’re doing wrong. Doing it right the first time is the ideal approach.
Our aim is to “be as Lean as possible” instead of “doing Lean” – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Don’t just do lean; be lean.
Side note: Lean Blitz Consulting is hosting an Introduction to Lean and Six Sigma workshop/luncheon on April 29th at the Greater Columbia (SC) Chamber of Commerce. It is open to the public – registration is here!