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Q&A With Sarah Stuart: Find Your Bright Spot

Thursday, November 30, 2017 | Operational Excellence

As I have traveled our state, I have received  many questions about the best way to start doing Lean. While Lean has helped many companies in some manufacturing industries improve significantly, there are still industries that are just now starting to ask questions about whether Lean is “for them”.

For those companies that have been on their Lean journey for a long time, I am sure you are thinking, “How could waste reduction not be for you; of course, it is.” Still, in these companies’ defense, the application of Lean is hard to see when your manufacturing area is a lab bench, your employee is a phD chemist, your product is growing inside of centrifuge, and the FDA is breathing down your back.

This month’s column is for those of you out there that see the opportunity and are not quite sure how to begin. The question is usually framed this way.

Question: I know we have waste.  I can see it, but I haven’t been able to convince my management team and/or corporate that we should start down this path. Right now, it is just me.  I have no training or certifications.  What can I do?

First, take heart. Some of us are old enough to remember a time when there weren’t any certifications.  They didn’t exist.  We were practitioners that read some books, rolled up our sleeves, and went to work.  You can do that, too.

There are key items for success for a company to transform.  Learning under the tutelage of an experienced coach is faster and more efficient.  Support from your Executive Leadership team is imperative for a transformation. On the other hand, if your management team is not there yet, you need to meet them where they are.  This is the reality of things and reminds me greatly of when some of us started.  It’s frustrating, but it’s reality.  You can still get the job done.

You can help your company to start to see the benefits of Lean by creating what Dan and Chip Heath call in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard a Bright Spot.  This is that area of success that you can point to and say, See, we did it here. THIS is what Lean looks like.  Here a picture of before and here is after

Back in the day we called this a pilot project.  A Bright Spot is a WAY more interesting name don’t you think?  We picked a small area with ready and willing employees and we reduced waste.  When this area was successful, many times, the Lean implementation couldn’t happen fast enough with full Leadership support.

So, how do you begin?  Here is how we began back in the day.

First-Prepare yourself

I highly recommend three books.  The first two are about Lean tools, and the third is about implementation.  The first book concentrates on office type applications.  It is called Lean in the Public Sector: The Pursuit of Perfection in Government Services by Bert Teeuwen.

Yes, I know you are not the government.  Trust me, though, all biotech/biomedical companies out there in highly regulated industries will relate to the examples and recommendations in the book.  At Impact Washington, we have done extensive work with government entities.  Believe me when I say there is no one that the government regulates more extensively than themselves.

The second book is called, Lean Production Simplified by Pascal Dennis.  This book is a no nonsense description of the Lean tools applied to more traditional manufacturing processes.  It may take a bit to transfer concepts like Kanban and Pull into your processes, but learning about these tools in a textbook way will help you be more innovative in their application.  The third book concentrates on applying a systematic experimentation method for implementation.  In the certain industries, the scientific method is your life.  It applies to process improvement as well and Toyota Kata by Mike Rother will explain how.

Second-Find Your Bright Spot

Go out and start talking to people. I don’t mean PowerPoint presentations that ask for permission.

I mean in your daily work; start talking to people.  Find out who is frustrated.  Listen for key phrases like, “This should not be so hard”, “Why are we so disorganized?”, and “We need to communicate better”.

Those people expressing frustration are prime targets for a Bright Spot. Talk to the people and try get them to say how much better their work life would be if these things were fixed.  Try to make sure the frustration is MOSTLY contained in that area.  You want your Bright Spot solutions to be mostly within the scope of the team.  In other words, steer clear from frustrations that are caused by other people/departments.  Try to keep the problem small.

Solving world hunger is not what we are about at this stage.  That will come later; for now we need to keep it small and solvable.

Third-Document the Waste

As your company’s Lean journey progresses later, there are other effective visual tools like Value Stream Maps that are effective in documenting waste, but in the beginning my favorite tool is a spaghetti chart.  A spaghetti chart is created by following the movement of people or information from one point to the next and then simply drawing a picture.  These charts make it clear in a very short amount of time where the opportunities are.

Here are two examples made by people trying to convince their skeptical organizations that implementing Lean could help them improve.  These pictures alone convinced both management and employees.  In both cases, each was created in less than an hour.

The first shows two people doing a manual 25-minute operation.  Each line shows the distance they traveled as they did the operation.  Once analyzed they were able to streamline the work place and reduce the time by 50%. Plus, the people doing the work reported that their feet hurt a lot less at the end of the day.

This second example represents the transfer of information only.  Digital waste is still waste.  Each line shows the number of times reports and information were passed back and forth for approval.  Once analyzed they were able to streamline the process and reduce the number of transfers back and forth for revision by 40%.  The names of the processes have been blocked to respect the organization’s privacy.

You will note that these are hand drawn, not fancy, and quick.  That is the point.  Show the waste in a small ready and willing area, and you won’t be able to stop them from starting their own Lean initiative.

Fourth-Roll Up Your Sleeves and Start Experimenting

Mike Rother in Toyota Kata can explain to you the best way to do this better than I can.  My only advice is to be creative as you can to experiment before you do a full implementation.  Examples could include running an old familiar project through a new process so people can see how things would work and risk mitigated.  They are far more likely to be able to judge success on a closed project than one that is still open.

Fifth-Document Before and After

Be sure to document your Bright Spot.  People will be curious.  Having a concise way to show the way things were to how much better they are now will make telling your story easier.  This is especially important in less traditional manufacturing or office environments.

At some point, your Leadership Team will need to engage or Lean has a highly likelihood of failing from an organizational perspective.  Sadly, we know this.  Still, this does not mean that there aren’t things highly dedicated individuals can do to help start the movement.

Impact Washington been around for many companies that have started their Lean journey. We remember what it was like when we were beginning practitioners.  Please contact us at if you want some ideas on how to proceed for your situation.






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