Flavor of the Month?

Resist the temptation to write off tools like Lean and Six Sigma as fads. They are valuable methodologies with potential to help the wastewater profession.

The “In My Words” column in this month’s TPO is about applying Lean methods to wastewater treatment. Sometimes the temptation when these things come around is to write them off as just the latest fad.

Anyone who has been in an organization for a while has seen slogans and initiatives with clever names come and go. They last until management loses interest, or until a manager or supervisor moves on and a new one comes in. So the temptation for a grizzled veteran is just to go along and ride it out.

Methods like Lean are different. They aren’t passing fancies. They’re tried and true processes that have done wonders for organizations of many kinds. In fact, they bear closer resemblance to proven surgical procedures than to management fads.

If you doubt that Lean works, just remember one word: Toyota. Recent problems with accelerator pedals aside, Toyota has been recognized for years as the paragon of manufacturing quality and efficiency. And Toyota is where Lean began.

 

Using data

The headline to this column also mentions Six Sigma, another approach to quality improvement that is perhaps more reliant on statistical analysis than Lean. Companies like GE and Motorola have used Six Sigma to great effect to reduce product defects and make processes more efficient.

Enough said about that. Let’s focus on Lean. The key thing these methodologies share is that they rely on data — not hunches, gut feel or educated guesses — to solve problems. Instead of nibbling around the edges of problems, Lean goes to the root cause.

I am not a Lean practitioner by training, but I have worked around the industry for long enough to see what it can do. I have read and written accounts of how it has done everything from streamlining operating room procedures in a hospital, to speeding up the payment process in a government office, to improving productivity in a graphic design business. The possibilities are truly without limit.

There is no reason why Lean methods can’t improve various facets of water and wastewater operations, so long as the people involved are receptive to it.

 

In essence

In the simplest possible terms, Lean is a way of finding and removing wasteful steps and actions within a process. A key Lean tool is value stream mapping, in which a group of people involved in a process pull that process apart into its components.

It’s amazing sometimes what mapping can reveal — ways of doing things that exist as artifacts of some older process, or steps that are taken for no other reason than that “this is the way we’ve always done it.” Once those wasteful steps are removed, the process goes on with greater efficiency and accuracy than ever before. And generally the people involved end up happier, with more time to devote to productive work.

There is great satisfaction in taking a persistent problem and solving it once and for all. Lean enables teams to do that. If I had been a young person coming up through the ranks of an organization, and if I had been given the opportunity to get training in Lean and become a problem solver, I would have taken it.

You may not have heard the term “Lean” around your organization. I would simply suggest that if you do, you should not reject or ridicule it as just another “flavor of the month.” You should embrace the idea and work with it. Or if no one around you has mentioned Lean, be the one to bring it up.



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