A Guide to Lean Process Improvement

Explore the definition of Lean process improvement and why it’s important for organizations as well as how principles, techniques, and steps are applied to this practice.

a group of quality managers conducting a lean process improvement session

Published 23 Sep 2022 | By Kevin Gausch, Patricia Guevara

What is Lean Process Improvement?

Lean process improvement refers to the continuous, proactive method of identifying opportunities for improvement, implementing changes based on such opportunities, measuring the impact of such changes, and eliminating waste from an organization’s processes to focus on those that bring more value to customers. Hence, this practice aims to define which processes are efficient and valuable, as well as those that bring no advantage to customers and the business.

Why is Lean Process Improvement Important?

Lean process improvement is of utmost importance to any organization that aims to determine and implement continuous, incremental changes to both existing and proposed systems in a strategic approach. These can be done by making workflows more efficient, thus minimizing redundancies in processes. Apart from that, this practice also builds and sustains value-adding activities for customers, the business, and its stakeholders.

Implementing Lean process improvement principles is crucial in mitigating risks of faults or inconsistencies in the organization’s overall operations. In return, the benefits of lean process improvement bring about favorable results such as effective production processes, quality services, and top-notch customer satisfaction are achieved.

In most cases, industries like manufacturing, construction, healthcare, and automotive use Lean principles to carry out Lean process improvement more effectively. These serve as a holistic guide in ensuring that no protocol is left unchecked and that every opportunity is carefully analyzed for improvement.

5 Principles of Lean and Their Practical Application

How do the foundational principles of Lean work when applied to Lean process improvement? Here, learn about the principles based on their importance to the overall improvement process.

1. Value

What is considered valuable by customers?

Looking from the customer’s perspective, an organization must be able to define what value is. In the general sense, value is something that would make people willing to pay. There lies the ultimate goal to identify their needs and offer valuable products and services that can satisfy and go beyond meeting such needs. Some Lean process improvement examples that fall under this principle include:

2. Value Stream

How can we achieve customer value?

With customer value as a starting point, the next step is to determine the kind of specific tasks, protocols, and activities that help you satisfy the customer’s needs. Hence, those that don’t help you achieve the customer value you’re aiming for are considered waste in the process. That said, necessary steps must be taken to reduce or eliminate such waste from the system.

3. Flow

How can we ensure smooth-flowing processes?

Now that you’ve removed or reduced wastes from the value stream, it’s time for you to ensure that the rest of the process runs with little to no delays, faults, and risks. Doing this helps you sustain and continuously improve what works. Some strategies you can consider under this principle include comprehensively training employees and standardizing tasks according to quality standards.

4. Pull

How can we limit inventory as waste?

This principle is based on the notion that products must be created from the needs of the customers, produced in quantities that are only needed, and delivered on time. Hence, having a value stream that follows a streamlined flow can help ensure that production processes are aligned with the customer value along the way.

5. Perfection

What are our steps to building a sustainable culture of Lean thinking?

Now that there’s a clear flow of how the principles of Lean apply to Lean process improvement, it’s important to remember that these must contribute to an organization’s efforts toward building a culture of Continuous Process Improvement (CPI) among stakeholders. That said, employees, managers, and leaders must always strive to perfect their processes and how they execute their tasks so that wastes are kept to a minimum and customer value is prioritized.

As these principles collectively help make the overall Lean process improvement more tailored to the goals of organizations, it pays to note that it doesn’t stop there. Instead, it must:

8 Lean Process Improvement Steps

  1. Analyze and identify what needs to be improved – This involves looking at the current processes of the organization to help pinpoint the delays, bottlenecks, or inefficiencies and thus create corrective and preventive actions for improvement.
  2. Implement changes – Careful planning on how certain changes and improvements must be made is encouraged as a solid foundation for the implementation. Project managers, among others, are the ones to lead initiatives and ensure everything is scheduled, monitored, and documented.
  3. Execute and monitor – Related to the second step, this phase also deals with improving how changes are done to fit the goals and objectives of the organization. Those in charge in this stage must also note any issues uncovered during execution.
  4. Ensure value-add – To further reinforce one of the Lean principles—Value—this step is all about assessing if processes are contributing to the end goal of meeting and surpassing customer value. This is where the act of reducing waste and continuously improving systems is greatly enforced.
  5. Mitigate risks – Since the nature of some activities involves risks, the method of streamlining operations as part of Lean process improvement is essential to establish activities that are risk-averse.
  6. Standardize – Repeating processes must have proper documentation, and their guidelines must be stored securely and easily accessible. This is so employees and other stakeholders can efficiently replicate processes and do their work effectively.
  7. Maintain compliance – Most especially when an organization maintains a Lean process improvement certification, establishing a system and implementing standard activities must become a significant part of company culture. This helps ensure that government-mandated protocols are strictly followed across the organization.
  8. Enhance customer experience – To fully realize the effectiveness of the overall Lean process improvement, the favorable results that represent achieving customer value must be present to be able to improve customer satisfaction.

Techniques

These are some of the most common Lean process improvement techniques you can use:

  • Kanban – As a visual process workflow tool using boards, Kanban allows individuals and teams to establish a shared understanding of an organization’s processes with the aim of effective work management.
  • Hoshin – Mainly used for strategic planning, Hoshin is a Lean process improvement tool that empowers organizational communication when it comes to setting objectives and achieving them by getting everyone on board to work towards a common goal.
  • 5S – This refers to the systematic approach to organizing workplaces by applying these 5 principles: Sort (seiri), Set in order (seiton), Shine (seiso), Standardize (seiketsu), and Sustain (shitsuke), which were originally pioneered by Toyota Motor Company.
  • 5 Whys – As a common root cause analysis tool, the 5 Whys method is also good for Lean process improvement. By simply asking the question “Why?” ideally 5 times, organizations can reach or identify the root cause of a problem which can help apply lean thinking and practices.
  • Six Sigma – Referring to an organizational cycle that aims to assess and measure the highest quality of work, Six Sigma helps enhance Lean process improvement through a data-driven approach in eliminating errors and defects to aid problem-solving.
  • Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA)and Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control (DMAIC) – When looking into a holistic approach, these two tools can be used for problem-solving and eliminating waste in business processes.
  • Gemba Walk – This is a workplace walkthrough method used to observe employees, learn about their tasks, and see where the “actual work” happens. Doing this helps organizations see processes in action and identify areas for improvement using Lean principles and productivity enhancement efforts.

Training

Another sustainable approach is conducting comprehensive Lean process improvement training programs. Depending on the specific and overall goals and objectives of the organization, the kind of guidance and learning opportunities that must be available for employees must be part of its initiatives toward continuous improvement. A Lean process improvement course can also help make the learning experience more targeted and less complicated.

EdApp by SafetyCulture is a micro-learning solution designed to improve the way organizations train workers toward quality and safety. Check out this free editable course on Think Lean that you can download from EdApp’s Course Library to help you get started on conducting Lean process improvement. 

FAQs about Lean Process Improvement

The Lean process is the method of building and sustaining a culture of continuous improvement in processes, workflows, and systems in an organization. It typically involves a long-term approach to help carry out sets of activities that bring value to customers and the business as well as remove wastes from the process.

In this context, the Lean approach aims to emphasize streamlining systems with the aim of creating value. On the other hand, Six Sigma focuses on eliminating defects and waste by reducing process variability. When applied together, organizations can have a holistic way of meeting customer needs and making business operations more efficient in the long run.

Some examples of Lean process improvement tools and techniques, as described earlier in this guide, include:

  • Kanban
  • Hoshin
  • 5S
  • 5 Whys
  • Six Sigma
  • PDCA
  • DMAIC
  • Gemba Walk

These are essential in efficiently conducting each step of the process toward continuous improvement.

One of the most common examples of how Lean process improvement is applied in industries is how process visualization gets enhanced. Using tools like the ones listed in the previous FAQ, you can analyze and assess your organization’s current workflows by making everyone involved understand them better with the help of visuals like charts, boards, and value maps.

Customer Engagement Executive

Kevin Gausch

Kevin has a Lean and Six Sigma Black Belt from Villanova University and Certified Manager of Quality and Organizational Excellence through ASQ with a focus on the construction industry. Kevin has 13 years of Quality and Project Management experience in the utility contractor space, including; electric transmission, distribution and substation, gas distribution and pipeline, and telecommunications, both inside and outside plant. 16 years of construction experience overall.

Kevin has a Lean and Six Sigma Black Belt from Villanova University and Certified Manager of Quality and Organizational Excellence through ASQ with a focus on the construction industry. Kevin has 13 years of Quality and Project Management experience in the utility contractor space, including; electric transmission, distribution and substation, gas distribution and pipeline, and telecommunications, both inside and outside plant. 16 years of construction experience overall.