This summer Heliview conducted a market survey, interviewing top logistic and production management in the Dutch SME market space. With the path from idea to invoice a long one, they confirmed that smart processes are now a must.

And being smart means being lean – a buzzword, but an essential concept none the less. Here we look at how to start the process of refining your operation to increase speed and reduce waste.

Awareness is an issue
Two things particularly caught my attention in the Heliview survey. The first was that 43% of the interviewees were not familiar with Lean manufacturing, having either never heard of it, or having only a vague understanding of the concept.

Secondly, many of the companies who were familiar with the principles were struggling to implement lean within their own organizations. Within the SME sector in general, it appears to be unusual for a business to have a lean “champion” or “black belt” in house. As such, many businesses wanting to adopt the philosophy appear to be stuck on the starting grid. Despite their interest, the questions around where to start and what to do are holding them back.

Taking the first steps
Many of our clients are either starting to enter the process or are already running a lean operation – often thanks to help from external consultancies. As such, I’d like to share our experience of the simple steps involved at the beginning, giving you an idea of what’s involved in preparing for a successful transition to lean. In the simplest of terms, there are five key points to address on the start of your journey:

1. Get senior management behind you
To see the transformation through to a successful conclusion, it’s vital that you get total buy-in from your Board of Directors. The journey to realizing lean’s significant rewards is a long one and it’s not always plain sailing. As such, it’s essential that management fully understand why the changes are being made, what the upside of them will be, and have a realistic understanding of how long it will take to get there. They need to be behind you the whole way so manage their expectations carefully.

2. Carefully define your priorities and targets
Defining your improvement priorities (projects) and targets (tasks) using an X-Matrix is a very worthwhile exercise. This tool is an excellent way to create a realistic plan of how you’ll actually go about realizing your objectives.

Start with your long term macro-strategic goals, and distill out the various sub-stages required to reach them. Once you have concrete medium and then short term action plans, you can break them down into specific projects and the on-the-ground tasks that need to be carried out within them.

3. Budget carefully and research possibilities for assistance
Invest time is creating a realistic budget to perform the tasks you set out. In the process of this, investigate what governmental assistance might be available to assist in making your organization more efficient and sustainable. Dutch companies, for example, have possibilities for assistance in implementing lean improvement via the WBSO (Wet Bevordering Speur- en Ontwikkelingswerk). Having some initial financial backing from a credible source will add serious weight to requests to your own board for funding.

4. Use the 5S’s
This is the foundation for your new lean manufacturing operation.

5S is a workplace organization method focusing on five activity pillars – transliterated, the original Japanese concepts all start with the letter “S”. The steps foster efficiency and effectiveness by identifying and storing items, maintaining them and the area they occupy, and standardizing and sustaining the new order. In short, it’s about being well organized and streamlined. Our customers employing 5S have, for example, drastically reduced order picking time by eliminating the ‘search’ for goods. Capital investment is reduced, less warehouse space is required, and employee motivation is increased (it’s nicer to work in a clean and tidy environment).

5. Start internal training
Gain traction for your new lean processes by getting internal education up and running. Hire your own ‘Sensei’ (a master or teacher) to train not only the logistic management, but all stakeholders within the organization. Get everyone (think purchase, warehousing, R&D, sales, manufacturing and finance) from the work floor to management involved and enthused. When everyone understands, across disciplines, it gives you a better chance of creating long term success.

This is obviously a very brief overview of the initial steps, but they should give you an idea of what’s involved in preparing for a successful implementation. Good luck!