Printing Lean

A War on Waste

May 24, 2011

There are approximately 12 million people working in manufacturing in the United States at roughly 332,000 companies. Most of these employees work for small to mid-size firms, those employing 250 or fewer people. Ninety-seven percent of manufacturing companies in the United States fall into the small and mid-size categories.

A lot of time, energy, and money are consumed in our attempts to improve workplace safety, quality and performance at many of these companies. You would think that all of these efforts are bearing fruit, but you would probably be wrong. Too many times individuals and organizations make what they truly believe are their best efforts at implementing Lean but they fall short and, sadly, many of these efforts are completely abandoned. Oftentimes the reason for these attempts falling short of their goals can be traced to a lack of planning, communicating, selecting and sustaining.


"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." – Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln, arguably one of the USA's greatest leaders, knew full well the value of planning prior to attacking any problem. Careful forethought and recognition of the tasks that lie ahead are qualities that are sorely lacking at many companies that have attempted the transition to a Lean enterprise.

Companies suffer from a disease that I call "Do it now," and they rush headlong into a well intentioned but poorly planned Lean transformation. Instead of careful forethought, these companies usually look no further than the completion of a task, the end of a billing cycle, or the end of a quarter. Little to no attention is paid to anything over the horizon, and when that horizon arrives at their doorstep these companies go into a near panic, desperately trying to do whatever it takes to get the problem solved, the job done.

"Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction, because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: The very definition of emergency is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.
"So, the first thing you do is to take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window and start once more. But if you haven't been planning you can't start to work, intelligently at least.
"That is the reason it is so important to plan, to keep yourselves steeped in the character of the problem that you may one day be called upon to solve – or to help solve." – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Had these companies been "steeped in the character of the problem that (they) may one day be called upon to solve" they wouldn't be in a panic, and would have given careful thought to how they might solve the problems that they're now facing.

One such problem, if it can be called a problem, is how to embark on a successful Lean transformation. This requires companies to look out over the horizon and to chart out the course that's needed to meet today's challenges and those that might occur tomorrow.

Planning is, in part, answering these questions:
Who are we, and who do we want to be?
Where are we, and where to we want to be?
What are the markers, or mileposts, along this journey?
When are we expected to arrive at these mileposts?
How we expected to get to these mileposts, and beyond?
Why are we going there in the first place?

You have these questions, your customers have these questions, and your employees most certainly have these questions. You need to answer these questions and you need a plan to provide these answers.

The plan must be communicated to your customers, your vendors and your employees. Everyone is making this journey, this Lean transformation, and everyone needs to know the starting point, the route, the destination, and the vehicles that will be used to get them there.

Making plans without sharing them with your employees is like creating a new playbook to win the Super Bowl and then not sharing it with your team. How are they supposed to know which plays to run in each situation? Who is supposed to be carrying the ball, who's blocking, who's tackling?

There are many ways to communicate your strategic plans with your employees, but the best way is simple, straightforward honesty. Answer those questions, above, about who, what, how, when, where, and why, and I bet you'll be surprised by the level of buy-in and support. All it takes is a little communication.

Let everyone know what his or her role is and the impact they will have on the outcome. Show them how and why makeready or setup reduction efforts lead to more open capacity, which in turn leads to more sales, which in turn leads to more profitability, which in turn leads to growth opportunities for the company and for them.

Now that you have your goals set and your plan is in place and communicated throughout the organization, start carrying out the plan. You need to run the plays from the playbook.

A common mistake made by many companies is that they begin to train everyone on every tool in the Lean tool kit. You need to select the tool based on the problem that you're trying to fix.

Some of the most common tools that printers use include 5S, point-of-use-storage (POUS) and single minute exchange of die (SMED). While these are excellent tools they should be used only if and when you need them, not just because they are good tools.

The 5S tool – Sort, Set in Order or Place, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain – is used to help identify wastes within any organization so that these wastes can be eliminated. 5S is not used to clean up. When used, or misused, in this way the power behind 5S is lost and most organizations ultimately abandon its use, because 5S is seen as a stand-alone or "use in case of emergency" tool and not as part of a well planned Lean transformation.

The same can be said for the POUS and SMED tools. These tools are meant to solve specific problems, and when misused they could end up creating even more waste. For example, many companies install shadow boards and hang their tools for easy access and to quickly determine if any tools are missing. Often these shadow boards are set up because operators were searching for tools or other items and it was felt that shadow boards would eliminate that waste. Unfortunately though, the location of these boards requires the operator to walk away from his or her equipment to retrieve a tool. The waste of searching for a tool has now turned into the waste of walking back and forth to retrieve the tool. The real issue is that the equipment isn't running while the operator was searching for a tool. The equipment still isn't running while the operator walks back and forth to the new shadow board to retrieve the tool.

So many attempts at Lean transformations fail because of the lack of planning for how organizations will keep the momentum going when the novelty of Lean fades away. When we talk about sustaining we're not talking about maintaining the new "post-kaizen" status quo; we're talking about how to keep people in a continuous improvement frame of mind and keep the creative juices flowing. To a Lean practitioner it's easy to keep our focus on continuous improvement because we've learned to see all of the wastes that non-practitioners are unable to see.

Teaching people the skill that they need to make improvements and to get these improvements to stick is key to sustaining their interest in and efforts on continuous improvement.

The Training Within Industry modules of Job Methods and Job Instruction provide employees with those skills to continuously challenge everything about their work so that improvements can be made, and then effectively teach these improvements to everyone who needs to know.

Job Methods teaches people how to develop a plan to best utilize the manpower, machines and materials that are available to them. Job Instruction teaches people how to make sure that any improvements in the methods are put to use throughout the organization.

Both Job Methods and Job Instruction provide the skills needed to think about how the work is done so that it can be made safer, easier to do, and to produce better quality products and services. Both follow the PDCA or Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, which is itself an application of the Scientific Method of observe, hypothesize, test, and analyze. With these skills employees can unlock the collective power of their knowledge and experiences and use them to continuously improve their work environment.

A war on waste
Giving employees the knowledge and skills that they need to continuously improve is not enough. We need to use their knowledge and skills as part of a comprehensive plan to improve workplace safety, quality and performance. By communicating this plan employees will be able to make the best decisions on what improvement tools to use and how and when to use them. The right tool used at the right time will have the maximum impact on your company's strategic plan. Providing the skill set to develop new methods and to put these new methods in place will unleash an army of waste warriors. These four important steps – planning, communicating, selecting, and sustaining – will enable you to wage an effective war on waste on your way to becoming a Lean enterprise.

Tom Southworth is a Lean consultant with CONNSTEP, Connecticut's Manufacturing Extension Partnership. He is a Senior Member of ASQ, an ASQ Certified Manager of Quality & Organizational Excellence, a senior member of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, SME Lean Bronze Certified, and a certified TWI Job Instruction and Job Relations Trainer. He can be reached by email at
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