Much has been written about Toyota’s approach to Lean Production, Manufacturing companies throughout the world have spent millions of dollars on learning the system. More recently the service industry in health and education are imitating or modifying the practice, with varying degrees of success. Again with a great investment in consulting, training and process improvement measures.
But what about small businesses who can't afford such a huge investment? Well, there is a way to become "Lean" without breaking your bank account and without going through all the seemingly complicated consulting and training. The easiest way for a small business to initiate a cost effective "Lean" process is to understand the principles behind Toyota's Lean approach and apply them to the business. Let's break those down into four easy principles that you can begin using today.
1. Create value for customers.
The most effective strategy that a small company can have is to focus on the customer. Customers are the lifeblood of any business, without them there is no business. Cost effective and value added services develop customer loyalty and referrals. Review the way you service your customers. Here are several questions to get you started:
Are we customer-centric? Do we have a customer service purpose and values statement? Do we provide customer service training that will add value to the way we relate to customers? Do we have reward programs for our customers? Do we invite customers back when we have something new to offer them? Do we periodically follow-up a purchase with a thank you note? Do we make it easy for customers to buy our products? Do we know our customers' wants and needs? When was the last time we sat down and talked to customers? Do we know our regular customers by name? What processes do we have in place to serve customers? Are they cumbersome or are they customer friendly? What do employees say about improving the way we go about serving customers? Are goods placed in easy reach? Are our offices and retail outlets attractive and inviting? How can we reduce and remove "red tape" and replace it with "green tape"?
The key to adding value for customers is to keep asking questions that will prompt you and your employees to find answers on how you can consistently deliver customer-centric service.
2. Improve efficiency and eliminate waste that doesn't create value for customers
Review the way you do business by pulling apart the processes you have in place. A process is nothing other than a series of steps you take (or procedures you have to achieve something. Clarify what you have in place. Eliminate those that are unnecessary and make those you keep more efficient. Here are some examples:
Stop printing out copies of material that you can keep in your virtual filing system (but make sure you have backup copies); send letters and invoices by email; use a simple document scanner to keep virtual copies of material thereby cutting down on hard copy file folders and filing cabinets; reduce the number of meetings or make them more productive; coordinate sales calls to an area rather than driving all over the city; recycle all recyclable waste material; centralize office equipment; reduce the number of interruptions you have in a day; review where you store inventory to make it easier to fulfill orders; keep your inventory current; call customers in advance to confirm appointments and their expectations; develop standard procedure manuals; keep your shop floor and desk free from clutter; make it easy to identify tools by having a visual tool wall and color coded containers for larger tools or small parts.
3. Continuously improve people and products
I often hear employers say "people are our greatest asset," but when I question that statement I find they invest little in providing training for their employees. If people are your greatest asset, then you need to develop a culture where continuous learning is normal and accepted.
Consider learning opportunities that will enhance personal and organizational productivity, influencing and building relationships, problem solving, decision making, planning projects, selling goods and services, servicing customers, strengthening teamwork or any other area that is specific to your business.
People are genuinely open to learning when given the opportunity, and they think highly of an organization that invests in their on-going development. Individuals who are kept current with new or renewed skills contribute more effectively and work towards improving results.
Continuously improving and renewing your products or services is critical in today's changing marketplace. I see and hear the catch phrase "new and improved", but sometimes I wonder whether it's just a marketing gimmick so that customers will buy a product that is often on the decline. The phrase is overused as often little is new and even less is improved. It's time we became serious about improving and renewing products.
Continuously improving products is all about understanding your customers demand for your goods and services and developing a process to respond to them in a timely fashion. Small businesses can:
Keep an eye out for new products that complement and add value to their existing line; remove products that don't sell and add real value to a "renewed" product; market test a new product before launching it to understand how it adds value for customers; visit customers to assess how the goods or services they purchased met their needs and satisfaction; ask customers for suggestions on how you can improve your product or service; send out satisfaction rating forms with space to answer the question 'How can we improve our service or product?"; provide current information to customers that help them with the product or service they purchased from you.
Customers need to see and feel that your company is acting on their behalf by providing them with quality products and services they perceive as having real value. They become sceptical when they perceive the only thing that has been renewed is the packaging or the marketing slogan.
4. Live respectful values.
Spend considerable time in developing a positive values-based culture. One of the first things I do when I walk into an organization is to take a quick temperature of the culture. I watch how people interact with each other. I look at the "organizational graffiti" on the wall, for instance: are their motivational posters or are negative images lurking in individual offices, at the cooler, or in the photocopy room. I listen to the language and messages that employees, supervisors and customer service representatives use; I observe if people are being told what to do rather than being involved in finding solutions.
One can tell a lot about how people live company values in a relatively short time. Whether we agree or not, customers feel this as well, and their first impressions stick. They will walk out of a place of business with that impression and will tell their friends about what they saw, heard and felt.
The key in developing a positive values-based culture is to encourage everyone in an organization to act with respect, honesty, integrity, trust and collaboration. Small business owners can clarify their own values with employees, be positive examples, and engage employees in developing a set of values for the business.
Once the values are clarified then everyone has a responsibility to hold each other accountable to ensure they are carried out. This is viewed not as a negative or punitive act but one where people are genuinely committed to upholding them. Living respectful values increases employee satisfaction, improves customer service, and strengthens a business's reputation.
As an owner of a small business you don't need to get hung up with using the words that explain Toyota's concepts such as Kaizen, Kanban, Mudo-Murii, Gumba. You may want to learn what they mean but use language that your employees and customers understand. Use simple language similar to the four points above and seek solutions to the questions:
Throughout the clarification process be genuine and supportive of employees and always keep your focus on what is in the best interest of your customers. In the end (which is a bit of an oxymoron as there is no end) you will create an on-going process that has invaluable rewards, such as:
A culture focused on continuous learning designed to improve people, processes and products
Here are a few more resources for you to check out:
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