A Lean Approach: How Planning and Understanding Provide Customer Value

I attended a seminar this past week on Lean strategies. The speaker pointed out that while Lean is often thought of as a manufacturing strategy, it is applicable to any series of tasks that make up a process. So any such process, whether it is the manufacturing process, the process for running a loan application through a financial institution, or the process for designing and building a building, is a candidate for applying Lean principles.

The basic premise of Lean is to remove as much non-value-added (NVA) activity from the process. What I found interesting is the simplistic definition of “value”. He defined Value as “any activity the customer is willing to pay for”.

It is a somewhat daunting task to imagine all that we do that a customer perceives as an NVA activity. We know that much of it does in fact provide value, or at least is necessary to allow us to provide the services that do provide value. For example, a buyer of a widget doesn’t get any value for the accountant who pays the mortgage for the facility that the widget is made in, but the fact that the widget is made in the proper manufacturing environment is of value to the buyer.

Clearly, there is potential to get leaner in our activities and exercise proper vigilance to keep unnecessary NVA from seeping into our day-to-day activities.

That said, there are many NVA activities that a customer might not be willing to pay for directly, but they expect those activities to be there anyway – the building, lights, management, employee training, recruiting and so forth. Another NVA that shows up frequently is producing in excess of what the customer requires. Note that the customer can be either internal or external.

Here’s the thing. Planning to be lean, therefore, means that you are seeking to understand what your customer needs and avoid providing more than is necessary. This, I believe, is much harder than it appears. It requires intensive and open communications.

Several years ago, one of our offices was designated as the lead designer and contractor for a pharmaceutical manufacturer that was implementing a multi-year master growth plan. We partnered with some key subcontractors to implement the program over several years as a team. The team was co-located in an office structure without walls, other than some conference rooms. Each project wound up exceeding the previous one for some performance metrics, to the point where they were exceeding their own expectations in terms of efficiencies and speed. By removing the obstacles to open and purpose-driven communications and teamwork, this team had a professional experience that is not easily matched by a normal work environment. Think about how unfortunate that is.

Setting the goals, establishing expectations and equipping the teams to achieve is the first step. Getting them to learn to communicate in-depth and seek to understand the optimal amount of information is the key. But, why would anyone not endeavor to pursue these objectives? It can only make you better.

“You must have long-range goals to keep you from being frustrated by short-range failures.”

Charles C. Noble

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

Peter F. Drucker

“Continuous improvement is not about the things you do well – that’s work. Continuous improvement is about removing the things that get in the way of your work. The headaches, the things that slow you down, that’s what continuous improvement is all about.”

Bruce Hamilton