Learning from Business: Lean Production

In a previous post about the business model of prospect research offices, I mentioned that, as a result of efforts to increase productivity several years ago, my office started validating many more prospects than the development directors could meet with in a reasonable period of time.  We eventually developed such an oversupply of prospects and potential prospects that we scaled back on validating many more names for a while; in the meantime, we tried to figure out the best way of identifying and validating prospects to ensure that they ended up moving into the prospect pipeline.

As it turned out, concurrent changes in our division brought along changes in the way prospects were assigned, and that, in turn, gave us a new opportunity to reconsider the issue.  One of the changes we came up with was to start handling some elements of the prospect identification and validation process more like the reactive research request process.  While we continued doing proactive research and recording recommendations for assignment in our database, we started worrying less about pushing out names to development directors until they said they needed more names to work with.

Where in the past, we would have set a goal to identify or validate a large group of names and then push them out for assignment in batches as we finished them, now we identify and validate some of them as we go about our daily work, and we keep development directors apprised of the most interesting ones through e-mail alerts and our department newsletter, but we don’t focus on working through specific batches of validations until those batches are needed.

“Toyota Manufacturing UK – Assembly” by Toyota UK licensed under CC By-NC-ND 2.0

About two months after this change in our process last fall, while taking a course in business operations, I was introduced to the concept of lean production and “just-in-time” manufacturing.  Toyota engineer Taiichi Ohno is generally given credit for having initially developed the principles of lean production in the years after World War II, though others have further refined them since then.  There are several definitions of these concepts available online, as well as many websites devoted to teaching the principles, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll just use a definition of “just-in-time” copied from Investopedia:

An inventory strategy companies employ to increase efficiency and decrease waste by receiving goods only as they are needed in the production process, thereby reducing inventory costs.

This method requires that producers are able to accurately forecast demand.

A good example would be a car manufacturer that operates with very low inventory levels, relying on their supply chain to deliver the parts they need to build cars. The parts needed to manufacture the cars do not arrive before nor after they are needed, rather they arrive just as they are needed.

This inventory supply system represents a shift away from the older “just in case” strategy where producers carried large inventories in case higher demand had to be met.

While the shift in my department’s work flow patterns hadn’t been inspired by the principles of either lean production or just-in-time, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities with the more efficient process we had recently adopted.  That, in turn, has gotten me thinking much more lately about how I can adopt more of the principles to effectively guide the work of my department.

Below is a list of ten basic principles of lean production that can be applied to any sort of work process:

1. Eliminate waste
2. Minimize inventory
3. Maximize flow
4. Pull production from customer demand
5. Meet customer requirements
6. Do it right the first time
7. Empower workers
8. Design for rapid changeover
9. Partner with suppliers
10. Create a culture of continuous improvement

Looking over that list now, I can identify areas for potential improvement, but more importantly, I see a list of topics and questions that can be asked regularly as I examine the flow of work through my department, or on a more general level, as I plan or structure days or weeks, both at work and at home.

The concept of lean production has a great power to transform the way we work and the way we use our time.  Writing about it again now, I think it is something I definitely need to keep exploring, and, where possible, applying to my work.

Have you applied any of the concepts of lean production in your workplace?  If not, what principle(s) do you think you would choose to focus on first?  And if you have applied the concepts, what changed as a result?


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