A common mistake many firms make when moving to adopt Lean thinking is to begin at the tool level. These firms might, for example, choose a target process and then begin doing 5S in that process.
Usually, this is done with the best of intentions. However, this approach usually fails because the firm has not first defined its business as a system of interconnected and interdependent processes, and has moved instead to apply tools. Defining the business system and its member processes is the key first step that allows a firm to begin to move beyond firefighting and move towards stable processes and operations. A system that has not been defined or understood is a system that cannot be managed or improved.
Defining and stabilizing processes is the first step in improvement. Stable processes are processes that begin to operate with some degree of control and predictability. Chaos and firefighting have been reduced, and the organization is beginning to work on creating and implementing solutions to real business problems. This can only happen when processes have been defined and everyone is in agreement about what the system and its member processes are.
Defining processes also creates process responsibility and accountability. A key part of defining processes is identifying management-level responsibility for process performance, as well as the work teams that are responsible for the execution and performance of day-to-day operations within processes. This, in turn, addresses the key question of who will improve processes: it will be those people with responsibility and accountability for process performance at both the management and functionary level.
In firms which have defined their key business processes and are working to stabilize their system, improvement projects have been opened up and process teams are working collaboratively to create solutions to real business problems. Sometimes this work will cut across process boundaries as teams need to be configured to address dysfunction between one or more processes in the system. This approach leads naturally to the use of tools, but the difference is that the tools are now being applied, not as something in themselves, but because they are an integral part of the solution to a real problem.
Stable operations and processes are not easy to achieve. Many firms, it seems, thrive on chaos and uncertainty. However, chaos carries with it the penalty of economic inefficiency: chaotic firms have lower productivity, lower customer satisfaction and loyalty, and lower profits. The way out of the chaos trap is to begin stabilizing operations by defining and managing key business processes.