Register for the Continuous Improvement Conference April 1- April 4, 2012.

The success that printing companies have in using Lean manufacturing concepts depends, largely, on the effectiveness of their managers.  Here are six steps your managers can take to speed the pace of your company’s improvement: 


Key 1.  Understand what is meant by improvement. 

Most managers seek competitive advantage through operational improvement when the better approach is to seek Lean improvement. Lean improvement is not about the work, but, rather, about eliminating wastes—things that get in the way of efficient work. These wastes—such as waiting—add time and cost and no customer value. You should become familiar with the eight common wastes.

Over 95% of the elapsed time between paying and getting paid is attributable to these wastes. Unless managers are trained in what to look for, these wastes may be invisible.  Managers should first  visit the work area with an open mind to identify improvement opportunities.  It is also a good idea to visit a few organizations that have well-developed improvement systems, speak to your peers,  and  learn from their experiences.


Key 2.  Demonstrate Passionate Commitment.

Passion for your work will not only drive you forward, but it is also conveyed to your employees.  For managers who see and understand the opportunity for improvement, it’s easy to be passionate. Employees respond to your example of passionate commitment.  Remember—your passion can’t be delegated. If you are a no-show on the floor, don’t expect a commitment from employees.  


Key 3.  Learn the Tools.

When both managers and employees understand the meaning of  improvement, it creates an opportunity to apply the “how-to” or the tools of Lean Manufacturing.  These are the means to improvement that will work in any organization. Before attempting the know-how, be sure you know and can articulate why these tools are needed.  An employee may initially respond to a tool like 5S with objections. Most objections are just cautionary—that is, employees need to know more before accepting a new idea. 


As management is learning the tools, they  are creating a favorable environment for learning and practice and keeping everyone practiced. Provide training at the point of need and allocate time as part of the training for practice with a real, if small, project. Don’t penalize for mistakes but do praise small victories. Lean is learned by doing—and, the best learning occurs in small increments; twenty minutes per day is better than a day once per month.


Key 4.  Make the job easier, better, faster and then cheaper.

Use the above order for successful improvement. Open the issue by addressing job strain as the main reason for change, which shows respect for employees while generating initial buy-in. The most important tacit learning for employees in the early stages of an improvement program should be, “This is a good thing.  It made my job easier. I’ll keep an open mind.” Unfortunately most organizations implement in reverse order, aiming first for cost reduction. Cost reduction is an important objective in a price competitive industry like printing, but creating employee engagement will lead to cost savings.


Key 5.  Start small and expand from a solid core.

The technical part of Lean—the tools—are difficult to implement without careful nurturing.  This is because everyone needs to un-learn old habits and thinking. Be careful to address only the changes your company can support at one time. It is better to focus each improvement in a small, manageable area. Remember to celebrate successes, reflect on problems, and then expand the breadth of participation.


Key 6.  Banish the 8th waste.

The 8th waste, the worst waste of all, is Loss of Human Creativity. Conventional managers treat most employees as ‘eyes and hands’, squandering their potential contributions. Lean managers unlock employee creativity by developing a corps of lean learners, experimenters, and problem-solvers. For Lean managers, learning and practicing the tools, the know-how, is the means not only to higher productivity but also the means to developing the know-why:  an enduring culture of continuous improvement. 



This post comes from Bruce Hamilton, president of GBMP and a speaker at our upcoming Continuous Improvement Conference, April 1–4 in St. Louis. Before joining GBMP, Bruce’s company received the Shingo Prize for Operation Excellence, an internationally recognized standard for lean manufacturing. He has helped some of America’s largest and smallest organizations realize the benefits of Lean philosophy and practice. You can read more of his improvement thoughts at

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