When I speak with people about lean programs, I am often asked, “Where should we start?” While this sounds like a very simple question, it actually requires a lot of thought. However, the simple answer is that you must first decide where you want to go before you know where you should start. Think of it like this: If you don’t know where you want to go, it really doesn’t matter if you have a map.
I have a GPS for my car that is pretty high tech. It communicates with satellites that are orbiting thousands of miles above the Earth. It can tell me where I am, give turn-by-turn directions and even tell me how fast I am going. However, with all of that technology, if I can’t put in a final destination, the GPS is pretty useless.
The same is true for lean, Six Sigma or whatever you call your continuous improvement effort. If you don’t know where you are trying to go, even the best lean program won’t help very much.
There are mountains of information about lean, Toyota Production System and continuous improvement processes out there. You can read a book a week and probably spend several years digesting just what is written so far. You can hire consultants that can make a process lean down to the tenth of a second, and you can save a lot of money. You can even teach some of your folks about lean in the process. All of these things are good, but they are not exactly what we are after – yet.
You should be able to very clearly and concisely articulate where it is that you want to go before you do any of the things above. If you can’t, don’t start yet. When I ask this simple question to companies and people who ask me where to start, I usually get answers that may be accurate but aren’t really relevant. For example, I might hear, “We want to get better,” or “We want to save money.” While those are things that lean can help achieve, neither of them paints the picture of what you want to accomplish.
You can read some of the lean and continuous improvement books out there to get ideas or talk to some lean professionals, but be sure to decide where you are trying to go before you take off on the trip.
Some of the things you should consider include:
- Have I gone through a reorganization that could impact the quality of my product?
- What is changing on the economic landscape that will impact my business?
- What new changes may come out of the new government administration that may change my business model?
- What opportunities are being created right now that we need to capitalize on for the future?
- Are there “green” issues that may impact my business?
- How old is our product offering, and is it time for a review?
- What is the long-term corporate strategy, and how do we support that strategy?
There are many other items that you should discuss as a team when formulating the vision for a continuous improvement program. The point is to have the conversations now before you start. Make sure you can clearly and consistently articulate what is important and what you are working toward.
The challenge for you and your colleagues is to be able to clearly answer and articulate an answer to the question, “Why are we embracing continuous improvement?”