Continuous Process Improvement Doesn’t Always Mean Change
Continuous process improvement is a fundamental cornerstone of Lean methodologies. To take something and eliminate waste while making it more efficient is the very principle behind a Lean approach! But change for the sake of change isn’t productive, even if it does lead to a small improvement. Forcing change as part of continuous process improvement devalues the spirit of the approach. Manufacturers need to realize that improvement doesn’t always mean change, and change isn’t always for the better.
Change for the sake of change
As they get more involved with Lean concepts, many Lean leaders become fixated on the idea of change. They see opportunities for improvement everywhere and are convinced that sweeping change is the way to unlock value. They become so enamored with the idea of breaking everything down to build it back up better, that they often fail to see the simpler solutions in front of them — those that don’t require excessive change.
Change for the sake of change is no better than ignoring inefficiencies. You’re only swapping one negative for another. To truly honor the spirit of Lean continuous process improvement, you need to follow the data, not just assume the need for change.
When change is a bad thing
Let’s consider some of the scenarios when change might not be the answer for improvement:
- When massive, disruptive changes are needed to justify a minor, insignificant level of improvement. For example, completely overhauling the inventorying conventions to account for a single new part.
- When the investment in change is so immense it would take significant time to realize the savings. For example, spending $40 million on process improvements that would amount to $10,000 in savings annually.
- When the improvement to one process would cause rippling negativity to peripheral or connected processes. For example, changing the order of operations in a value stream to improve productivity by 15%, only to disrupt two other processes by 45% each.
Too many Lean evangelists see opportunity for improvement and use it as justification to pursue change. But when they pursue change with negative consequence, they’re treading on the very ideals of Lean! It presents a conundrum: allow the inefficiency or pursue disruptive change?
Improvement is possible outside of change
There’s often a very simple answer to inefficiency vs. disruptive change. Find a way to do what you’re already doing, but better! This is the true spirit of Lean and a smart course of action before assuming change is needed.
Are there new devices, products, or technologies that can reduce the waste in your current processes? Are your people as trained and attentive as they should be to minimize waste? Are there different steps to a process that you can modulate before deeming it a failure? There are many ways to improve a process without changing the fundamental nature of it. Moreover, these solutions often cost less, are less disruptive, and are met with less resistance.
Lean is not synonymous with change — improvement is, and change doesn’t always lead to improvement. Even change that’s positive now can have long-term consequences. Change has its role in continuous process improvement — but only where the data says it works. Run a PDCA (plan, do, check, act) Cycle or a DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, control) investigation to determine the effects of change and ask yourself if the end justifies the means. If it does, embrace change; if it doesn’t, find a better way.