So, you are thinking about embarking upon a lean journey at your company. Or, more than likely, you are going to be RE-embarking upon a lean journey at your company. But where do you start? At the beginning, of course.

But is it enough to take that first single step? Is it not as important, if not more important, to know where you are going? How are you going to get there? What provisions and skills might you need on the journey? Do you think that Edmund Hillary woke up one morning, decided he was going to be the first to scale Mount Everest, and by the end of the afternoon he was on top of the world? No Sir. As with Hillary and Everest, your lean journey needs preparation – and lots of it.

The first step is to define your destination. Where are you going? This needs to be defined up front so that you can measure progress against the plan. What plan? This is the second step. You need to know how you are going to get to your destination. This is obviously going to be a long journey and not a day trip. What are you going to need? Hillary had Tenzing Norgay as his Sherpa – the guide who knew the mountain and carried the provisions. Who do you have as your Sherpa and what are they carrying? Is it enough to reach the top?

 “There are a lot of “certification mills” out there which will offer a certification for little cash and little effort. Do not be duped into engaging one.”

Most critically, where are you NOW? There are two points in any journey – where you are starting and where you are going. These two points define the journey – you cannot end your journey unless you have determined your destination – and you cannot begin your journey unless you know where you are and what you will need.

Assuming a defined strategy (or future state) in the lean journey exists, the process of planning starts with the assessment. In its most simple form, an assessment is an evaluation of the present state of something. In school, students are assessed as to their position and the progress of their education by a series of tests which evaluate their knowledge of a subject and their readiness to proceed with the material. In a lean assessment, this evaluation determines where an organisation is in respect to its intended destination and the state of readiness in which to progress forward.

Internal Self-Assessment:

This is an evaluation performed by an organisation using its own resources. Sometimes the organisation will obtain and leverage external assessment tools that are available on the internet.

Example: An example of a successful self-assessment programme can be found at United Technologies Corporation (UTC) and its Achieving Competitive Excellence (ACE) Program, which is billed as UTC’s “Operating System”. A core belief
of ACE is that every employee, from the highest position to the lowest position, is involved in the efforts to improve the company with the shared goals of eliminating waste and “delighting” customers. As such, UTC is in a continual cycle of assessing, planning, acting, and evaluating.

Pros: A benefit of an internal assessment is that it is highly customisable and specific to the company creating the assessment. The company that is doing the self-assessment can identify a desired outcome from the effort, target specific areas to assess, and determine the assessment criterion.

Cons: The integrity of self-assessment can be compromised and the results skewed by politics and self-interest – “If I don’t like the results, I can just make the numbers work.” In addition, a company that does a self-assessment does not have the opportunity to benefit from the fresh eyes of an outsider.

External Assessment

This is an evaluation performed by resources which are external to that of the
organisation. Almost always, the company that hires out an assessment is one that is facing considerable challenges and has lost its faith in its internal capabilities based on past performance.

Example: Private equity and “turn-around” firms which take an ownership interest in distressed companies will believe (rightfully or wrongly) that the company is in distress because of an inability of the present resources to perform.
Because of this lack of confidence, they will almost always seek external resources to perform an assessment.

Pros: In challenging times, internal people become increasingly anxious about their future and might not be willing participants in an improvement initiative because they fear it might mean losing their jobs by redundancy or performance. Introducing trusted outsiders with fresh eyes, and whose allegiance is aligned with ownership, might accelerate the achievement of necessary improvements for the company to overcome its challenges – and, in the case of distressed companies, even to the point of becoming viable.

Cons: The minimal leveraging of existing knowledge of the business, or the past “lessons learned” from those who have worked there, might return results that are less than what might have been achieved if existing knowledge were more actively sought or engaged.

Hybrid Assessment

This is an evaluation performed by the organisation which utilises internal resources in conjunction with external resources. This approach is found to be the approach most companies take, especially when they are new to the disciplines of lean and they are not in a “turn-around” or distressed situation.

Example: Most companies that do not have a mature and successful lean program seek to accelerate their journey by engaging an outside consulting firm that specialises in lean program development. There are many such firms that exist, but it is important for companies to realise that sustainable success depends upon building internal capacity and capability, and they should not hire consulting firms merely for engaging projects (where the knowledge will leave – along with the consultants – after the engagement is complete).

Pros: The company gets the benefit of using fresh eyes and at the same time leverage the knowledge and capacity of the people who worked the processes (usually, for a considerable amount of time).

Cons: There is a potential for friction between the internal resources and the external resources which needs to be guarded against.

Many mid-sized manufacturing companies will leverage government-sponsored programmes for improving competitiveness. Through such programmes, companies can obtain services from resources at a discount from market-value (or as a source of funding for a company to hire a consulting firm of their choosing). In the United States, this mission is often accomplished by the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (or NIST-MEP) which will, as a function of its value-proposition, perform assessments in conjunction with the existing company staff.

In addition to partnering with consulting firms and leveraging government programmes, many universities also have programmes for conducting lean assessments. One such University (which is also an MEP) is Purdue University in Indiana, USA. In addition to offering degrees in industrial engineering (including the disciplines of both lean and six sigma), Purdue’s manufacturing assistance offerings are very robust. Of course, there are other universities with similar programmes, and a quick internet search will probably return a result that is suitable for almost any company, almost anywhere.

Many firms will seek recognition for their efforts. They would then be able to leverage this recognition to gain respect among peers, and also demonstrate to customers (and vendors) that they take their improvement programmes seriously. But the winning of a “prize” should not be the goal, and is not a guarantee that the company can be considered a viable long-term partner. For instance, consider the case of Delphi Corporation. Although Delphi was a serial recipient of the prestigious Shingo Prize for Manufacturing Excellence from 1999 to 2007, Delphi declared bankruptcy in 2005.

However, there are other factors to consider. On certifications for individuals, the advice is “Caveat Emptor”, Latin for “Let the buyer beware.” There are a lot of “certification mills” out there which will offer a certification for little cash and little effort. Do not be duped into engaging one. The question to ask yourself is, “If someone were to query me as to where I obtained my certification, would I be embarrassed to tell them?” If the answer to that question is yes, then don’t engage.

There are numerous legitimate organisations where an individual might become lean certified, including from the Institute of Industrial Engineers (IIE), Villanova University (USA) and the University of Michigan (USA). Of special
note and worthy of inquiry is a new joint programme offered by an alliance of the American Society for Quality (ASQ), the Society for Manufacturing Excellence (SME), the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME), and the Shingo Prize.

In the end, it is important to remember that a lean assessment is only the starting point. To be successful, a company needs to know where it is going (strategy), how it is going to get there (tactics), and what it needs for the journey (logistics). And, of course, a lean assessment is not worth doing at all unless you are dedicated to embarking upon the journey.