A while ago, my boss made an interesting distinction. Someone made the comment that lean was “easy”. He said, “No, lean is simple, but it isn’t easy”. I thought it would be fun to dig into this a little. Sometimes the most profound things are “simple”. I think that this statement that Nick made is one of those things.
Several years ago, we were holding a post job review on a project in Santa Cruz. This project had several different elements. Some punched windows, some curtain wall, some vent windows, louvers and some corrugated siding. We track our labor by each system so part of the review is to talk about what went well and where we can improve and look at that by system. Our field lead man made the point that the most difficult part of the project was the siding. He felt we should avoid that material and scope of work in the future because of the amount of work it required. The PM looked at the numbers and said “that was the most profitable part of the project!”. So, the fact that it was “hard” was not the issue since they actually performed the work in less hours than we estimated. The other “easier” systems had run over on hours. Of all the systems on this job, the corrugated siding was the “simplest”. You got the material in sheet form. There was only one width and one length available. You just cut it in on the site to fit. It did require more manual labor on the site, but it was simple. Now, think of the curtain wall system. It wasn’t hard. Unitized wall is fairly easy to set in the field. You hook it up with a crane and set it in place. But it isn’t simple. Tons of engineering, shop drawings, fabrication tickets, automatic machinery, different vendors, glass sizes, and other elements go into creating this system that ends up being easy to set. But no one would call it “simple”.
In lean, we are really searching for simplicity. We don’t want complicated systems that take tons of “non value added” steps to create. We are looking to eliminate the “waste” and only have value flow to our customer. So we look to simplify the system. We look to simplify the shop drawings and the tickets. We look to simplify the fabrication required. And with each simpler step, we remove waste. Does that make it easy? No. Easy would be to just do what you did yesterday. Easy would be to not challenge yourself each day to find a better way. Easy is the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy. Making things simpler is the hard work. There is nothing easy about it.
As another example, look at De La Salle football. They built a simple system that created a 151 game winning streak that ran from 1992 – 2004. Was it easy? No. They had to work hard every day, every game, every year to beat their rivals. But even though the players they started with were just average and the players change every year, they managed to win every game for 12 years in a row. Simplicity. Speed off the ball was a key simple strategy and they made it work. Tons of hard work went into getting that simple idea to flow.
So, don’t spend too much time in your lean journey looking for easy. Spend your time trying to simplify your processes, simplify your systems, and remove steps. Paul Akers had 4 things to identify to see if you should proceed with any improvement idea. 1. Is it safer? If it has the potential to make it less safe, do not proceed. 2. Will this change improve quality? If it has the potential to make quality worse, do not proceed. Is it simpler? If it has the potential to make things more complicated, do not proceed. Finally, will it make it faster? If not, it is not an improvement. These checks are in order of importance, so if you can’t pass the safety test, don’t move on. If you get past safety and can’t pass the quality step, don’t move on. But his third step is simpler. Even if it will make it easier (save time) you should forego any improvement that makes things less complicated even if it will save you time.
So think a little on this idea and let me know how you will apply it in your work.