The term Lean manufacturing refers to the optimization of the practices, processes, and habits used by knowledge workers – more specifically, using Lean principles to work smarter, innovate faster, and deliver more value to customers. If you’re looking for practical tips on how to implement Lean manufacturing in your organization, you’ve come to the right place.

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If you’re just getting started with Lean manufacturing, we highly recommend you first learn the history and basic principles of this transformative methodology.

First Steps Toward Implementation of Lean Manufacturing

Find Your Why

Teams and organizations usually know what they do. They understand how they do it – but they cannot explain why they do it.

As Simon Sinek explained in his widely popular TED talk, understanding the why behind your actions is the single most important factor for success, in virtually anything – at home, at work, and in life.

It’s also critical when adopting a new way of thinking, which is what implementation of Lean manufacturing is, at its core. If you’re going to convince everyone in your team, department, or organization that they need to change the way they fundamentally think about work, you’ll need to be able to explain why. Is it to reconnect with your customers, become more innovative, reach profitability, land a person on Mars?

Figure out what that reason is for your organization, and you’ll be infinitely more likely to implement Lean manufacturing successfully.

Find a Champion (or Become One)

Depending on the culture of your organization, adopting a Lean practice might be a gutsy move. It’ll have you pushing back on things, questioning things, and saying, “No” more. If your organization is adopting Lean from the top-down, then you’ll likely have support for your new, continuously improving behavior.

But if your implementation of Lean manufacturing is part of a grassroots effort, you’ll need help. An executive champion – someone in a leadership position who is willing to encourage, support, and shelter you as you learn the ropes of Lean – can do a great deal to bolster your Lean initiative and increase its odds of “sticking.”

In fact, in over 3,000 Lean practitioners surveyed, we found that the highest-performing Lean teams had an executive champion 69% of the time.

Make your executive champion’s job easier by keeping them informed: Share your learnings regularly, use data to demonstrate growth, share engaging articles about Lean, invite them to sit in on standups and retrospectives. If you’re championing a team, get involved and learn as much as you can about Lean principles, so you can truly practice Lean leadership.

Master the Basics

Although the concepts behind Lean manufacturing are simple, they can be challenging to implement in our complex, ever-changing work environments. Strengthen your Lean muscles by reading Lean books to learn theory and principles. Read and share Lean manufacturing blogs and listen to Lean podcasts to stay engaged and motivated in your Lean practice.

Map Your Value Stream

Once you feel comfortable with Lean manufacturing principles and practices, engage in a value stream mapping exercise. You can start at the team level and work your way up from there.

Value stream mapping will help you understand how value flows through your team and your organization. Going through the exercise will provide lots of opportunity for important, clarifying conversations that will help you begin to effect change in a positive way.

Also originating from the Toyota Production System is the practice of Kanban, a visual workflow management tool that can help provide accountability and structure to your Lean initiative.

Value stream mapping will help you identify the steps in your process; Kanban will help you analyze and optimize that process for value creation. If you’re looking for a pragmatic, hands-on approach to practicing Lean, we highly encourage you to complete the five exercises contained within the Kanban Roadmap.

Foster a Culture of Experimentation

Why is failure bad? In traditional work environments, we’re taught that failure represents a waste of time, energy, and money. Failure is a risk that did not pay off.

But as smart and talented as our employees are, they will fail. Failure is an inherent part of innovation – so if we discourage failure, we discourage innovation.

The Lean manufacturing approach embraces and even celebrates failure as an opportunity for growth. The goal isn’t to eliminate failure, but to mitigate the impact failed ideas have on the system.

We do this by:

  • failing early and often
  • testing our ideas before scaling them
  • asking customers for feedback on new ideas, and only investing in the ones that stick

Innovative companies aren’t those who get it right every time. They’re the ones who experiment, learn, and make informed decisions faster than their competitors. They reduce the impact of failure by seeking it out, rather than running from it. Fostering a culture of experimentation is an essential first step towards becoming more innovative, more influential, and more profitable.

The How: Lean Tools

You know your why, and by learning about Lean principles, you’ve learned the what of Lean. Now it’s time to learn how to practice Lean. When it comes to practicing Lean day-to-day, it’s helpful to have some practical tools in your arsenal. Before we wrap up, we’d like to share some of the most helpful Lean tools you can start using to transform the way you work.

We’ve learned that the most successful Lean implementations rely on the following tools:

  • Kanban boards
  • WIP limits
  • Continuous delivery
  • Pull system

Kanban Boards

Kanban is a helpful, practical approach to workflow management. Managing your team’s work on a Kanban board will help you see where bottlenecks and blockers occur, where you have capacity issues, and where work gets stuck – allowing you to practice continuous improvement.

WIP Limits

If you want to move quickly and with agility, you need to manage your capacity. If everyone on your work is too busy to think, you won’t be able to perform at your highest level.

When practicing Lean, we’re encouraged to adopt a “less is more” approach when it comes to managing our work. Rather than trying to do 10 things at once, we aim to complete one task at a time, as efficiently as possible. In doing so, we’re able to get more done in less time, with greater focus and higher quality as added bonuses. This practice of limiting our work in progress, or WIP, is referred to in Lean and Kanban as using WIP limits.

Continuous Delivery

Continuous delivery describes a system with a sustainable and continuous flow of work. While continuous delivery isn’t our number-one goal, it can help us achieve our goal of creating more value for our customers.

Optimizing for continuous delivery means that we make decisions to break work down into smaller chunks and aim to move those chunks through our process quickly and efficiently. Doing so allows us to get value into the hands of our customers faster, which helps us learn, grow, and adapt faster than our competitors. This is especially important for manufacturers of large-scale products, for which cost of delay is measured in millions of dollars per day.

Aiming to practice continuous delivery, ideally through the use of Kanban boards and WIP limits, is an excellent way to increase speed and gain momentum in a company looking to undergo a Lean transformation.

Pull System

In most work systems, work is pushed from one person to another – employee A finishes a piece of work and then throws it over the wall to employee B. The problem with this system is that it’s hardly a system at all, since the team works without respect to each other’s capacity or current workload. Flow issues such as bottlenecks, blockers, etc. are likely to occur, draining the morale and efficiency of the team.

We learned earlier that Lean teams aim to optimize the whole. One practical way we do this is by using a pull system. Rather than blindly starting work and pushing it onto our coworkers, we first try to help coworkers finish existing tasks before starting new ones. When all opportunities to assist with existing work have been exhausted, we can pull new work onto the board. If we are responsible for the first step on a project, we don’t push it onto our coworker when we’re done. We notify them when it’s ready, and then they pull it into the next step when they have capacity for it.

This might seem like a minor distinction, but using a pull system can have a dramatic impact on a team’s productivity, efficiency, and morale.

Continuous Improvement

Every Lean manufacturing implementation is different; some begin as grassroots movements while others start from the top-down. Some extend to all functions of a business while others are limited to manufacturing-oriented departments within an organization.

Regardless of how Lean gets started in your organization, it has the potential to make a significant impact on efficiency, productivity, innovation, and the bottom line. By providing the structure to keep teams focused on efficiency and flow, the principles of Lean manufacturing not only help teams perform at a higher level, they’re also making manufacturing companies more attractive places to work for talented engineers.

We always recommend that any implementation of Lean manufacturing begins slowly and intentionally. Failed implementations are almost always due to a shallow understanding of Lean basics. But if you can align around your why – and then share Lean thinking and principles across your organization – you have everything you need to launch a successful implementation of Lean manufacturing.