Lean for the Summer  

Three exercises for a leaner, more efficient and more profitable business

Summer is upon us and, for many print businesses, summer is treated as a strategic hibernation period. Business is often a bit slower and so, between juggling vacation schedules and recovering from the surge of the previous quarter, summer often becomes a great excuse to put off new initiatives and to maintain the status quo.

However, for most lean print businesses, summer represents a great opportunity to implement new projects and to conduct kaizen exercises. With a lighter load, there is an opportunity to try new things without the added capacity complications. With a bit more time on their hands, the necessary participants can more easily find opportunities to gather together.

If you are new to lean, here are a few simple exercises you can do this summer that will have immediate positive effects on your production and will position you well for the late summer business surge.

Exercise 1: Summer clean-up with 5S

Marie Kondo has formed an impressive empire around strategies for and the benefits of uncluttering for modern consumers. Similarly, 5S is a structured approach to uncluttering work cells (production areas) to optimize safety, productivity, and efficiency. Highly organized work cells also improve employee morale and engagement, as a significant amount of reported stress and frustration is attributed to non-productive activities arising from disorganization and missing/damaged resources. 

The five S’s are Sort, Set in order, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain

  1. Sort Everything in the work cell is examined, asking, “Is this needed? If so, is it needed in this quantity? If so, how frequently is it needed? Where, specifically, is it required? When it is needed? Who is responsible for ensuring it is available when needed? What is the reorder process?” Things are sorted into Discard, Hold in inventory, Hold near, and Needed categories. Ideally, kanban cards are created to support the reorder process for items held near or held in inventory. 
  2. Set in order Now that the required items have been identified, they need to be distributed in the most efficient way possible in the work cell. Needed tools and supplies get a permanent home near where they are used, ideally at the ergonomic height for use. Needed items should be visible to the operator and their positions labelled or shadow boarded so that operators can easily see if they are running low or if something is missing.

Best in class lean plants colour code their work cells and the needed tools of that work cell to make it easy to get things back where they belong. Every employee can easily determine that the blue handled dustpan goes back to the blue work cell and that the red stapler goes back to accounting (for example).

Hold near items are generally safety items like fire extinguishers, local inventory or less frequently used items that are needed at the work cell. Hold near items might be shared by several work cells, making a local inventory more efficient than individual restocking from the warehouse. Ideally, hold near items should be located less than a minute from the work cell.

Hold in inventory items are generally overstocked supplies for the work cell which will eventually be needed but don’t need to be cluttering the work cell in the quantities currently held.

Items marked for discard are not necessarily immediately thrown away. If they are still useful, they may be offered to another work cell that uses the item or even sold. In most circumstances, you will discover many things which have simply been waiting for a decision to be made about them, these items usually provide an immediate decluttering effect when finally dealt with.

To complete the process, plant safety and efficiency can be enhanced by deploying floor lines to define the intended positions of equipment, the range of motion of doors or appendages, and safe walkways for transit.

  1. Shine Lean plants are notoriously clean as well as organized and it’s for good reason. A clean work cell promotes safety and efficiency while making it much easier to detect emerging issues. Unfortunately, like most concepts, “clean” is subjective, so it’s important to develop a common meaning through standardized processes and schedules. 

It’s important to determine not just what gets dirty but what causes it and how to properly deal with it. Some devices may require more frequent cleaning, and some may have hidden areas that must be specifically called out for cleaning. Clean devices work better, last longer, and suffer less downtime for maintenance issues.

  1. Standardize Now that you’ve determined the ideal operating environment and how to maintain it, you need to document it so that all the stakeholders understand it and new employees can quickly adapt to it. Of course, this only represents the current understanding of the ideal operating environment, and things are sure to change. Documenting your 5S process itself is also important so that work cell operators can make suggestions and future changes can be implemented.
  2. Sustain Part of sustaining is ensuring that checklists are being used and audits are being performed, but 5S is truly a part of the lean continuous improvement culture and the most important element of Sustain is to ensure that every stakeholder owns the efficiency of their area and knows how to suggest changes.

This summer, in the absence of a lean black belt, your line managers can take charge of the initial 5S exercises for their functional area, with a senior leader providing sponsorship to enable the approvals process. 

Exercise 2: The Gemba Walk

Gemba is the Japanese term for “the actual place” or, in lean terms, where the work is done. The summer represents a great opportunity to scrutinize each facet of your production value stream. 

While senior leadership may already understand that an issue exists, through the reporting of a line manager, it’s important to go to gemba to see the place where the issue is happening and explore the Five Whys. A lean leader will go see, ask why, and show respect to the team, soliciting their solution feedback. Ideally gemba walks result in immediate action for improvement which is followed up on during the next gemba walk.

Experienced lean plants have a regular cadence for gemba walks. It gives line and senior managers an opportunity to better understand the production challenges being faced by each department and to brainstorm on how to resolve issues in real time. Companies that engage in gemba walks experience greater employee engagement and develop agile efficiency in their processes.

Ideally, you as the business leader will lead the gemba walks to help reinforce the lean culture. If you make a regular weekly practice of gemba walks this summer, you’ll be surprised by the speed at which you achieve results.

Exercise 3: Do the Poka Yoke 

(Put your whole self in and turn your results around)

Poka yoke is the Japanese term for error-proofing and is a lean exercise that focuses on removing the opportunities for defects. A poka yoke exercise is often best run directly with the cell operator as they know their job the best, although more complicated issues may require a kaizen project team. 

Review with your team the most frequent defect-causing issues and where they occur, and select the top few. Frequently there are a few common root causes for errors that may occur in different steps of the value stream. Now, go to gemba and explore why these errors persist and validate their root causes. 

Poka yoke solutions tend to be relatively inexpensive and easily implemented if you’re dealing with a root cause. Custom jigs, visual cues, alarms, standardized interfaces, adjustable work cells, and project carts are all examples of potential poka yoke solutions. When dealing with a true root cause, poka yoke solutions have immediate impacts on quality, consistency, and efficiency.

Commit to trying these three lean exercises for the next eight weeks and you’re sure to have a much leaner, stronger, and more capable plant when business picks back up in September.