Written by Martin Hurworth

Lean thinking and stability go hand in hand.

At its heart, the pursuit of lean is about creating process stability. The stability of a more efficient production line, the stability of smarter working or the stability of a whole business through more profitable practises.

Recent political events have not leant themselves well to this desire for balance. Far from it. Instead, uncertainty abounds and with it, an all-pervasive sense of not knowing what might come next.

General elections, independence referendums, pollster’s predictions and then Trump; it’s been year after year of political uncertainty that gives firms pause for thought on investment or restructuring plans.

Uncertainty can be the enemy of good manufacturing, but not if we handle it right. So, in the absence of a coherent or predictable world view emerging anytime soon, what can we be in control of? Companies can instead be working to improve the things they can change, drawing on the principles of lean to make their own business more stable in unpredictable times.

My business was a traditional, entrepreneurially-minded business that had become limited by its processes. Not just in manufacturing, but every department. We knew that a radical and ambitious implementation of lean would be needed to give us a stable, successful future.

We’re halfway through that change, and here are a few things it’s taught me along the way.

Know what it is

Lean thinking is about valuing individuals and eliminating waste. The idea grew out of businesses trying to replicate Toyota’s legendary Toyota Production System and has since come to represent a whole school of thought. In short, though, it’s about getting employees to look at their jobs differently.

Know why you’re doing it

Why does your business need lean thinking? This question has to be answered at the start and the answer may require you to make big changes. If you’re simply looking to cut costs, that’s not lean thinking – that’s leaning by a different name. On the other hand, if stability is your goal, you won’t get it by keeping everything the same – so know which parts of your business need an overhaul.

For us, the list was quite long. We’re a typical family-run manufacturer with all the good and bad bits that come with that. Production, sales, IT, HR, back-office functions – they all needed a fundamental rethink after we’d been doing the same old things for years.

Get support from the highest level

If your Board doesn’t embrace lean thinking then why should the rest of your team? Real lean manufacturing is about more than just the shop floor, it affects every employee. If done right, the benefits are felt across the whole business too.

We made ‘lean system thinking’ our core strategy a little over two years ago and it’s helped us make big changes to the way we do things. Then we brought in a new leadership team, led by me, which had the job of introducing lean to the rest of the business.

Have a strategy

While the core principles of lean thinking are universal, the way they’re used should be individual to your business. So get to know the theory, then work out the most suitable way to implement it for your business.

For us, a big part was drawing on the leadership team’s experience to help us adopt all that we could from the automotive industry. Their experience and guidance helped us to adopt a true engineering mindset, letting us squeeze the most out of every department without compromising on quality, service or morale.

Build a team which embodies lean

If you’re really going to become lean then a compromise between the new and the old is important. Your existing workforce must be willing to embrace new ideas, while anyone new who joins must have an appreciation for the old ways of working. Otherwise your lean dream will soon be over.

You can aid this process simply through regular communication between the leadership and their teams about the benefits and limitations of the new and the old. We’ve also balanced internal and external appointments, training and promoting staff from within and recruiting new blood too.

Show your support

Your team won’t start thinking lean if they don’t have the tools. So give them what they need. We’ve paid good money for the expertise of industry consultants to work with our teams because we know it saves us money and makes us money in the long-run.

Bringing in outside support for our teams has helped us preserve our company culture while accepting the fact that we don’t know everything. It’s helped us to put lean into action.

Learn from the best

Don’t be afraid to borrow ideas from other industries which have made them smarter and leaner – if they work, they’re worth considering. We brought in Advanced Product Quality Planning (APQP) from the automotive industry to make our R&D department more systematic. We also started using NASTRAN finite element analysis – a virtual load testing system originally developed for NASA. These are just examples which work for us; your own business will have different needs which can be addressed with different tools. If they support lean thinking, give them a try.

Bring out the best

Lean thinking can be applied to coaching to help people embody lean thinking. The principles are the same; most people want to be efficient in their jobs and not waste time, it’s just that processes often getting in the way.

Whatever department we looked at, we found that the people doing the job knew where time or money was being wasted better than anyone. We just had to ask them. They were often the people with the best ideas for improving things, too.

Be clear about why it matters to you

In my experience, lean thinking was re-discovering my ‘tourist’s eyes’ to question every part of our business. It had the potential to help us work better and more efficiently, together. And it was about combining lean processes with lean thinking to eliminate waste and benefit our staff, our business and our bottom line. So consider why it’s important to you. That way, even if we can’t bring stability to the wider world, we can bring it to our business.