Maria Grzanka: Getting Organized Using the Principles of Lean

sticky notes kanban board

Maria Grzanka is a continuous improvement instructor, facilitator, and coach with 20 years’ experience practicing Lean, primarily focused on business processes.

She designs and facilitates custom workshops for organizations and coach leaders in developing a continuous improvement culture.

On February 27, Maria will lead a project management workshop at Pregame – here’s a preview!

What is Lean?
My definition goes like this: Lean is a collection of principles, values, and tools pointing toward a common goal: to create an environment where it is safe to do the work; where we continually learn to solve problems and to progress as a team.

Lean is not a discrete set of tools or ideas that when implemented “properly” make problems disappear. It’s just a way of looking at the flow of work and then methodically and persistently removing obstacles that disrupt the flow.

What do most people get wrong about Lean?
Most people start with why Lean, rather than why this. Then they go see what a Lean organization is doing and attempt to copy what they see. Some people will get a lucky with a copied solution that works for them. Most will end up frustrated.

Lean is much more than the tools. It’s about teaching people to see waste in a work flow, building their skills and confidence in problem solving, and cultivating an environment where a problem is not a bad thing – it’s an opportunity to change.

Which well-known businesses use Lean?
It’s hard to say who is and is not Lean because many companies have used Lean at some point in their history, or some people in a company may be using Lean without a formal initiative by the rest of the company. It’s one of things that once you see it – the waste – you can’t “unsee” it. Even if your business doesn’t formally use Lean, many of the concepts influence the way any person in an organization works to improve any area.

With that said, the darlings of the Lean world are, of course, Toyota or Boeing in manufacturing, and The Mayo Clinic or Virginia Mason in healthcare. In government, the State of Washington and the City of Denver have well-established Lean programs. Starbucks transformed their shops using Lean techniques around 2008/2009. Another fun example is Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

What made you interested in this approach?
If I’m going to spend most of my waking hours working, I’d better try to make it fun. Fun for me is figuring out how to not work so hard. The irony is that now I work really hard to help others not work so hard.

I’ve always had an inclination for process improvement: why are we doing that this way, why don’t we try _____? I was making it up as I went along until the company I worked for brought in consultants to train us in Lean and Six Sigma. I was instantly hooked. These guys spoke my language, but more importantly had a method for how to get others to “see the same thinking.” Like a doctor it’s a practice for sure and I suppose I like the personal learning that goes along with it too.

How can an individual incorporate Lean into their daily work?
Begin with the five principles from Lean Thinking (book by James Womack and Dan Jones):

  1. Identify value – what are we trying to do here?
  2. Map the value stream – even if it’s only in your head, what are the steps needed to make that value happen?
  3. Create flow – remove the obstacles, remove the bottlenecks, let the value flow.
  4. Establish pull – make only what is needed when it’s needed, let the downstream step trigger the upstream step,
  5. Seek perfection – now, do all that over and over, keep doing that forever and ever, and please have fun on the way!

What are the benefits of a Kanban board?
It’s a project management tool that:

  • helps you gauge capacity
  • minimizes over-production (producing more than what is needed right now)
  • over time, creates a routine process that is self-organizing, self-regulating, and self-sustaining
  • low-risk way to try out a Lean tool in your everyday work

Any other pro tips for avoiding task list overwhelm?
Pick one area to begin (e.g. one work team, one project, house chores, sales funnel, etc). Like any new process it takes some discipline and time to form a new habit.

Lean is all about incremental change (small plan-do-check-act cycles). The check-act part is the most important and the most often skipped part. The kanban board is only a means to an end, the end being better flow of the value you create.

Every once in a while purge the backlog. Don’t get too attached to it – if it’s important it will come up again.

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