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Navigating a Smoother Business Process Journey (and steering clear of a Lean river of waste)

Stock photo of mountain stream by Gary Yost

image by Gary Yost 

If you’re familiar with Lean Manufacturing or Lean processes, you’re likely familiar with Lean’s philosophy of removing waste. Manufacturing isn’t the only industry in which waste can happen, often inadvertently, and often when we are trying to avoid other pitfalls. Nearly every business encounters waste, including agriculture.

The “Lean River of Waste”

The “Lean River of Waste” is often used in a supply chain context to describe how creating excess inventory is only hiding waste. It may be avoiding some problems, but the waste creates others.  This phrase can also be used in non-manufacturing environments. Let’s talk about a specific example: using the River of Waste as a tool for defining appropriate staffing levels.

Using the river metaphor, let’s say your department is a vessel – a raft – traveling along the river. The river is your business process. Naturally, you want a smooth, safe, and efficient journey, right? 

But there are rocks (problems and obstacles) that make for a harrowing and bumpy ride. When water levels (resources) are low, you’re going to feel the bumps of those rocks a lot more. You could add more water, but that’s expensive and wasteful, so you want the right amount. How do you know how much water you need? 

Let the data tell the story

Maybe you have a lot of activity-based data about all the tasks your group performs. Fantastic. The first instinct is usually to use that data to justify either the current staffing levels or to add head count. But we’re going to take a different approach. We’re not going to manage the water; we’re going to tackle the rocks. Note: if you don’t have data, you can still follow this process using what you know as a manager. You’ll make some assumptions, but start tracking activity now, so that you can use it later.

But first, step back from the data. Clarify your strategy by answering some key questions: 

  • Why does your department of function exist?
  • What services do you provide?
  • Who are your customers?
  • How do you provide value for them?
  • What’s your improvement vision for your function?

Keep those answers in mind; let them steer your raft.

Now look at the data. Is it clear? Maybe it needs a little clean-up or maybe you need to clarify some points. Once that’s done, begin to analyze it. Look for the obvious trends, then dig a little deeper to get insights. 

Look for the big rocks

The larger rocks or obstacles are often the easiest to find.  And the rocks along your river come in many forms:

  • problems that create waste (rework, downtime, inferior production)
  • problems that impact your customer
  • missed opportunities (where could you be adding value?)

Once you’ve identified the rocks, your next step is to prioritize them. You can’t go after everything all at once, so what’s causing the most waste, the most pain? Pick no more than three or four. Then, tackling them one at a time, run a problem-solving exercise. 

What’s really causing the problem? Is it an outdated or unclear process? Do you have aging or inappropriate tools? Have the people been given enough training and support? Find the root cause. Sometimes this process involves simply asking the question “Why?” several times, for each answer you find. Identify ways to remove each rock or at least make it smaller – without adding any water to the river!

Step and Repeat

Put plans in place to implement those solutions and continue (or start!) to gather activity data. Check in again and make sure they worked and make adjustments as needed (PDCA).  Then tackle the next group of rocks. Repeat this process until you run out of rocks.

Once you’ve fixed most of the major problems, you’re going to have a pretty stable riverbed. Now you can decide what the right water level should be for smooth sailing. Translated: once you’ve fixed your major obstacles, you can easily determine what the RIGHT staffing levels should be.

How might you address the “rocks” in your organization? 

If the task feels daunting, or you don’t know quite where to begin, chances are we can help. At Azmera, we thrive when we can identify and tackle “rocks,” leaving you with a smoother ride.


image by Angga Indratama