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Lean: It's About the Little Things

July 29, 2008

Lean operation -finding ways to reduce costs and increase efficiency by improving internal processes -is not a new concept. Companies, starting with Toyota, began exploring the idea more than half a century ago, according to the Lean Enterprise Institute. But it wasn't until the 1980s that most U.S. manufacturers began recognizing how the process could help them. And it's taken roughly 20 years for many distributors to follow suit.
Chuck Cohen, president of Benco Dental, attributes the hesitancy of U.S. companies to embrace lean operations on the simple fact that we are a Big Gulp society"-we're looking for the one thing that will slake our thirst instead of realizing that the best results may actually come in smaller packages.
"We have to stop asking ourselves what's the biggest change,"Cohen says. "It's not about the miracle change; it's about the difference the little things can make." 
But, recognizing that there are small pieces isn't enough, according to Dr. Perry Daneshgari, president of MCA, Inc., and co-author of Lean Operations in Wholesale Distribution. Instead, it's like a puzzle; each piece is important but how they fit together is equally important.
In his book, now available from the National Association of Wholesale-Distributors (, Daneshgari gave the example of a company where each workstation could be achieving 95% accuracy. However, with 70 stations, the final result for the customer could be as low as 62%, thanks to the ripple effect. Take off a little bit of accuracy at every station and the end result isn't nearly as pretty.
Those of us in the Western world (especially the U.S.) often try to compartmentalize everything into nice little categories. Is it the forest or the trees? The challenge both Cohen and Daneshgari present is to see both aspects and how they impact one another.
A forest is not just one tree; in that same vein, lean is not just one change. Many seeds have to be planted for success.
A case study of Benco Dental's Continuous Improvement initiative -the term the distributor uses for lean -appears in the July 25 issue of Modern Distribution Management. Click here to read more about the hurdles they had to overcome to begin their journey.
An interview with Daneshgari about how and why distributors are starting to explore lean also appears in the July 25 issue. Click here to read more.
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