Someone once said, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Looking around, it seems that organisations have been listening, as there is a lot of planning going on.

Project planning, demand and supply planning, logistics planning, career planning, traffic planning, and so on. The interesting question is whether we pay too much attention to planning instead of designing processes capable of dealing with demand variation.

Planning is (to a large extent) at the heart of lean and influences lead time, process performance, costs and quality and should therefore be subject to a thorough focus.

As lean successfully expanded across industries, it is surprising to see planning play such a small part in the mind of senior management. Planning is often delegated to specialists, who are of course very good at it, but most of the times don’t see the bigger picture. This might lead to silo thinking and evidently to planning for the wrong reasons.

The two main reasons for planning should be ensuring value flow and learning.

Value can only flow when it is considered from a customer perspective as well as end-to-end in the supply chain. This should be the focus, instead of planning per department.

In all simplicity, planning is no more than guessing on the future (some do it better than others) and this is the reason why it is also good for learning – which is the heart of Deming’s (and Shewhart’s) PDCA cycle. If this is forgotten, there is a risk that planning is done for the wrong reasons, namely optimising in functions.

All the lean planning tools seem to be very simple and easy to implement, but before using them the nature of the problems to be solved must be understood.

Take for instance takt time: some people believe it’s the pace of your production process – but that is your cycle time. Takt time might be better explained as the customer demand rate and because customer demand (always) varies over time the takt time also needs to be seen (calculated) in the same period.

The goal is not to make cycle time match takt time but to ensure that stable processes including its waste meet customer demand. Then the focus would be on eliminating waste in the process to improve process capability. A good place to start is to study demand, as this will help you to reduce guessing and to be better in using PDCA.

Don’t be a tool head! Instead use planning for learning and use the learning to improve your system and make it flexible enough to deal with variation in demand. Once you understand your problem (root causes) you can learn about the lean tools and apply the one that is best placed to solve your problem.

Scheduling is a broad topic and I recommend that you spend some time understanding the principles and general elements before jumping to solutions. Be pragmatic and curious before setting off, as this will help you not to fail.