Lean Leadership

Supply Chain Improvement: In the Hands of the People

The best advice I can give you to improve the overall condition of your supply chain (lower costs, increased performance and customer satisfaction) is to go remove waste. It’s a very simple process actually, it goes something like this:

1) Find waste

2) Remove the waste

3) Repeat Steps 1-3

Now before you get frustrated with me, I realize it’s not that easy. It is simple, but not easy. As simple as it is to say “remove the waste”, it can be exponentially more difficult to successfully execute that step of the process.

Removing waste effectively can take many steps, and is rarely easy:

– First, you have to deeply understand the process (the work being done) to understand the full magnitude of the waste.

– Next, you have to become a student of the process to be certain you’ve found the root cause of the waste and not just skimmed the surface.

– Finally, you can take action against the root cause to put a systemic end to the waste in your supply chain.

Find and Remove Waste

So, if you can agree with my model for removing waste at least from a high-level, then we are ready to move on with this discussion.

The process outlined above can actually be executed in a variety of different ways. Once the tires hit the road, different leaders are going to go about trying that cycle in different ways and at different levels of the organization. I want to propose to you that even within the process you use to eliminate waste, more waste can be found! I realize that can sound defeating, but the idea of this article is to help you lean up your process for eliminating waste from the supply chain and do it to the best of your ability.

The fundamental problem for most organizations with the cycle described above is that is requires time, and sometimes very large amounts of time. It takes time to put together teams, committees, or problem solving efforts to identify root causes and solve them. Sometimes, even with those teams in place, problems still don’t seem to be getting solved. It’s hard for organizations to justify devoting time to something that isn’t producing results and takes resources away from other areas. This begs the question, is there something wrong with this simple plan of finding waste and removing it? What makes it so hard to execute? Does the way we go about trying it make a difference?

I believe that the primary reason this cycle doesn’t work is because the wrong people within your organization are trying to run it. If this cycle of “find waste, remove waste” is pushed from the top down and the people not doing the work itself are the ones finding problems and trying to solve them, you will end up sinking endless hours into problem solving with few long term benefits. If we look into the three things required to actually remove the waste from your supply chain, we can get a better understanding of why the top down approach doesn’t work:

Understand the process: It takes people who don’t do the work every day a longer amount of time to deeply understand the process. Essentially, time is wasted understanding a process that someone else already understands.

Identify the root cause: Without a deep understanding of the process, it’s easy to jump to conclusions and not identify a true root cause, leading to ineffective problem solving.

Take action: While managers or executives usually have no problem with this step, taking action prematurely and not solving the true root cause can end up creating more problems than you started with.

The ideal situation is for the people doing the work to be the ones driving this cycle of “find waste, remove waste” on a daily basis within the supply chain. They are the most equipped when it comes to “understanding the process”. Many times I think the employees fail to execute this cycle well because they are lacking support in the second two areas:

Identify the root cause: This does require some level of training around problem solving tools (5 Why Analysis, Fish bone diagram, etc.) and the mental model needed to get under the surface of problems. You have to be willing to embrace problems and not run from them before you can consistently get to the root cause. Organizations must be willing to invest in their people with teaching and training so they are equipped and empowered to do this.

Take action: The employees doing the work each day need to feel empowered to actually make changes to their process once they’ve identified root causes. Management and leadership needs to strongly support this type of behavior and take roadblocks out of the way that prevent those doing the work from being able to take action against waste.

If you can teach, train, and empower the people doing the work to identify waste and remove it, this really can be a successful, sustainable effort that produces bottom-line improvements to your entire supply chain. Putting power to solve problems into the hands of your people is the best thing you can do for your organization.

As we’ve now seen, the process itself for removing waste is very simple. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it is simple to understand. My parting question to you is now that some of the roadblocks to successfully implementing it have been called out, what’s stopping you from trying it?

Written by Colin Willis, SCPro, OPEX Team Lead at LeanCor

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