A Few Basic Thoughts About Lean and Continuous Improvement in Printing
There are many excellent books and videos on Lean and continuous improvement. They each provide a slightly different perspective and, as such, each adds their own unique value. To distill some of the more fundamental ideas, I’ve prepared a list of key thoughts that have been useful to me in practicing Lean as well as helping others to deepen their understanding. Here are a few of them.
Go to the Gemba and See
To understand issues and problems, we need to go where the action is occurring and see things for ourselves. That place is referred to as the gemba, Japanese for “where value-added work is occurring.” It’s often the shop floor but can be anywhere value-adding work is being done, for example, shipping, customer service, and sales. Managers typically are not close enough to the work of the gemba to know the real problems. Our ability to understand and help people and processes to improve depends on how often we are there seeing the reality of things, and the relationships we build.
While we’re at the gemba seeing the actual condition of things, we must ask questions of the people who are there all of the time — the employees who work there day after day. The people who work in the processes of the gemba have great insight into the challenges being encountered, and they often have good ideas for countermeasures. We can ask questions that help us understand their situation. “What gets in your way when you’re doing your job?” “What problems are you encountering?” “What do you see that could be improved?” The important point here is to shift from telling workers what to do and how to do it, to asking workers for their insight to gain a deeper understanding of the actual conditions before any actions are taken.
Respect for People
Operations do not become improved on their own; it requires the unrelenting attention and energy of people to make it happen. When people are asked for their ideas and are able to apply their brainpower and creativity to solve the daily problems of the business, the improvement energy is nearly boundless. Involving workers in the problem-solving process is one of the highest forms of respect. People feel valued when they’re asked for their thoughts and their answers are acted upon.
If we don’t know what and where the problems are, we can’t correct them. A culture where people are encouraged to bring problems forward and coached on how to solve them is one where problems can be solved quickly while they are still small. If problems remain hidden for fear of retribution or lack of time and ability to solve them, they grow into much bigger issues. The more quickly problems are exposed and countermeasures taken, the more quickly and smoothly work activities can occur. Companies have far more problems than people, so you’ll need to involve every employee in the problem-solving activities.
The 7 wastes of Lean (transport, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, overprocessing, and defects) are in every work activity, every process, and every company. These wastes create snags, delays, and inefficiencies in the work. They slow work down and add costs. Everyone in the company should learn these wastes, know how to recognize them, and work to eliminate as many of them as possible. As these wastes become evident and eliminated, work begins to flow more smoothly.
Kaizen (Japanese for improvement) is not just an activity, it’s an attitude and a way of thinking. It’s a recognition that there are wastes in every process and activity and the understanding that when those wastes are identified and removed or reduced, the work becomes easier. Easier leads to better. It also leads to faster and often cheaper. Since every work activity is weighed down by these wastes, everyone has an opportunity and obligation to practice kaizen. Simply stated, every job in an organization has two parts: the work activity and kaizen. Without continual improvement of work activities and processes, companies are stuck with the same amount of waste and inefficiency that they’ve always had.
Spend Ideas not Money
Often referred to as “creativity before capital” and “wit before wallet,” this aspect of Lean recognizes that the ideas and ingenuity of employees have often been underestimated. It also acknowledges that in the past, problems were usually solved with expensive new equipment, costly fixes, and overtime. However, when you tap into the brainpower of the people who work in the gemba, and coach them on improvement practices, simple, low-cost solutions to problems are what frequently occur. Furthermore, the solutions generally occur more quickly. It recognizes that an improvement not perfectly done today is better than the perfect solution done later. There is always a need for further, continual improvement.
While these few thoughts may be a refresher for many of you, I believe they’re worth revisiting and thinking about. Too often we tend to get narrowly focused on tools such as value stream mapping, 5S, quick changeover, and the like and lose sight of the basic thinking behind Lean and continuous improvement. In my experience, the right thinking is necessary for the right use of the tools.
About the CI Conference
The 2022 Continuous Improvement Conference (May 1–4 in Scottsdale, Arizona) is the only industry event focused on helping printing and converting companies achieve operational excellence by using the concepts of Lean manufacturing and other management and quality systems. Whether you’re starting a structured improvement program or are looking for ways to sustain and improve your existing efforts, the conference has content specifically designed for your knowledge level. To learn more about the event, visit ci.printing.org.
Continuous Improvement Newsletter is published by PRINTING United Alliance in support of its annual Continuous Improvement Conference. Past issues are available at ci.printing.org/ci-newsletters.
John is owner and principal of Compton & Associates, a consulting company dedicated to improving the people, processes, and profits of its clients. He is professor emeritus of the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he taught quality systems and process improvement while serving as director of the Center for Quality and Productivity in the Graphic Arts. Most recently, he served as vice president of quality and training at Vertis Communications and prior to that, he served as vice president of quality and organizational development at Fort Dearborn Company. John has authored and co-authored several books dealing with quality and productivity in the printing and imaging industry. He is a Master Lean/Six Sigma Black Belt and a senior member of the American Society for Quality. John has served as a consultant to the Continuous Improvement Conference since 2010.