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The industry is abuzz with talk of lean lean lean. In light of all the press on the matter of late, it’s important to cut through the feel-good stories to the nitty-gritty: Why is it so critical to understand lean? What considerations does it require? Do you have to jump in with two feet right away, or can you ease yourself—and your employees—into the process? Is there a certain way to go lean during an economic downturn? When you do decide to go lean, where should you start? And, most importantly, after you’ve started going lean, how do you measure your success with the process?

FenderBender asked Amjad Farah, manager of business development at BASF and a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, for practical, easy-to-follow advice on how to analyze your shop for its lean potential, and some easy ways to start the process of going lean, today.

Lean means continuous improvement and change. Lean is being proactive and initiating change instead of reacting to it. It’s about identifying and eliminating waste—and doing it all the time. It means changing your culture from a “come in and do your job” place to the new way of doing business, where everyone does their job better today than they did it yesterday. And by “better,” I mean eliminating waste. Eliminating waste is really what going lean is all about.

It’s not a matter of deciding whether or not to go lean but to what degree you want to do that. The first step is to really understand what lean is. There’s a lot of misconception out there about what lean is. People think it’s some plug and chug. Shop owners think, “If I just realign how my facility is laid out, I’ll be lean.” Not so. You have to recognize that to truly become a lean organization—and I know it sounds clichéd—there is no destination; it’s a journey.

It’s going to be a while before you consider yourself lean. Once you open your eyes to waste, you can’t stop looking. You do have to educate yourself. All the paint companies have training programs, which is a good first step. But before you attend training, you might want to get some books to read, even those outside the industry.

One of the first things you’ll do when applying lean is to implement 5 S: sort, store, shine, standardize and sustain. 5 S principle is the foundation; you have got to get organized. You need to know your existing processes in order to see where the waste is. You can’t organize a process that’s in chaos. The problem I see is that [shop owners] immediately go to the back of their shops to apply the 5 S’s. But they do a 3 S, not a 5 S, and then they have to do it again a few months later. I tell them that’s because they didn’t standardize or sustain.

I’ll go into shops and their offices will be a mess, and I’ll say, “What kind of example is this setting for your employees?” If I can be very forward with them, I will. If not, I’ll take a picture of their office and send it to them later. A picture speaks a thousand words. It really opens their eyes.

Everyone has to be engaged and involved. It can’t just be one department or group. Everyone has to get on the same page. You can have one person who derails the whole thing. That’s the job of the owner or manager—to engage employees. Someone cannot come in and do that for you. It won’t stick. You have to be committed to it. For a shop that’s really struggling and in a lot of chaos, don’t talk about lean. Start applying the tools, but don’t talk about lean. You’re going to scare everyone in your organization, and you’re going to have a revolt on your hands. The way to start is to look at the processes—to find waste and figure out how to eliminate it. The people who do the job every day know best. You can’t just tell them how to do it; you have to let them give ideas. Change is difficult for anyone. Anyone who says change is easy, that’s the person dictating the change. Until you have something that’s creating a definite need, it’s difficult. You need something that creates that sense of urgency. Otherwise, people won’t change. Everyone’s got a different driver. You have to figure out what your people need. It’s usually not about money. Oftentimes, especially today, it’s about security.

There’s a difference between being lean and being thin. Everyone’s looking at going lean because the economy is struggling. Certainly you can go ahead and implement lean, but doing it in crisis change mode is very difficult. You want to do it when things are good, because you’ll have resources. The first place we look in crisis mode is, “Where can we cut costs?” We can’t take the time to eliminate the waste, so we start eliminating people. The problem in doing that is that if you’re not careful, you’re not really getting lean, you’re getting thin.

Here’s the difference: Lean is the Olympic athlete who has no body fat, but plenty of muscle. Thin is the bulimic actress who falls trying to pick up her child. If you cut that deep in a shop, you may lose your existing customer base because you won’t have the resources you need to support them. People confuse reduced head count with lean.

You’ll know you’re succeeding at lean when you see it in your financials. You also know it when you get people from the shop floor saying things like, “Hey boss, I have an idea for a better way of doing something.” Or when you see your cycle times drop, or when you’re hitting targets you never thought possible. When you don’t have to set targets to stretch your people, and when the atmosphere goes from fear and dread to excitement, then you’re lean. It will happen if you’re doing the right things.

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