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Executive Insight

Taking Lean Beyond The Shopfloor

Lean is often associated with the manufacturing industry alone and it is common knowledge among the lean practitioners that substantial Muda (Waste in Lean terminology) exists in value streams from the support functions and are completely ignored by most organizations. This thinking is aggravated by the fact that lean is packaged as a methodology or a tool.

In this post we explore the central idea that lean is a thinking process and offers a set of principles that complement common sense. We present three cases where this idea was the fundamental premise for solving organizational problems that are not related to manufacturing. One of the themes that is sought to reinforce is that it is important to separate common sense and common practice and how lean can enable us to do that.

While the first case is that of making the kitchen more effective, the second is an extension of the first where we apply the principles to the canteen. The third deals with a symptom that is perhaps more common today – reducing the number of emails.

A leading global carmaker in India has one of the most modern plants in its group designed as per its global standards. The initial design of the plant was for 2000 employees employed during the initial years of inception, however, with the increase in number of models and production volume over the years, the employee strength also increased to 4500. The organizational focus on developing the support facilities like Kitchen and Canteen was extremely low. With an increase in employee strength, there was an increasing pressure on the facilities, like Kitchen and canteen, to maintain the standard, with new targets.

Principal Kitchen

There were complaints on food taste resulting in operators returning back to the line later than scheduled and leading to line stoppages and hence production loss. The Kitchen equipment got added as and when required, without any plan resulting in makeshift arrangements within the kitchen (like kitchen office being turned into store). There was crisscross movement inside the kitchen adding to the complexity with no clear movement paths or separated man & material movement. To add to the misery of the kitchen head, the delivery times were not on-time and leading to the operators waiting for food in the canteen and in turn taking longer breaks for lunch ultimately leading to production loss. The area, which was least thought of during the planning, was turning out to be nightmare for the best-in-class plant of the group.

We studied the processes, which pointed out that it takes 11 days to get the rice ready to serve from the time it enters the facility. While it takes 11 days, only 85 minutes were spent in the most important activities that would result in cooked rice.

We worked on the lean principles of pull-flow keeping in mind the sequence of activities and located the equipment that way as against the common practice of grouping similar processes together. This included designing the layout with flow as the guiding principle and removing as many flow-stoppers as possible. Looking at the product families, dedicated cooking lines were created for product families like rice, tea, vegetable (dry & gravy) and breakfast.

The team co-created a future and developed solutions that resulted in a reduction of 63% reduction in the total time taken to process rice and similar results in other product families. The unplanned storage points reduced to one-third the original and the raw material storage was reduced to 3 days.


Having improved the kitchen services the bottleneck at the canteen (eating place) was more visible.

The current canteen was not capable of catering to high number of employees during peak service hours leading to longer waiting times, longer queues waiting for getting served, and un-necessary crisscross movement of the people who come for lunch. These led to operators reporting late to their work place losing productive time.

In order to achieve the target of serving all the employees within the time allocated for lunch and to ensure that the people get food in time to have a peaceful personal time, we studied the ground reality armed with stop watches and a camera. What we saw was that it took the longest time for people to serve food into their plate eating up half the allotted time for the break. Another observation was that the operators preferred to sit and eat in groups and looked out for tables with as many chairs free. This resulted in isolated empty seats on almost each table that went unoccupied through the break, while people ‘searched’ for a place to sit. The replenishment of food into the containers at the serving area was a challenge as it took nearly 5 minutes for every refill stopping the line. The time taken for serving specific items into their plates also consumed a lot of time as selection and the movement of the ladle from the container to plate itself was repeated about a dozen times.

After a brainstorming session involving the people from the canteen, representation of the operators and the HR team, a list of ideas to be explored were drawn up and subsequently prioritized. Ideas like having partially filled plates and color-coding of the chairs for seating priority were tested out with positive results, moving away from the common practice of operators serving every item on to their plate by themselves. A replenishment mechanism was tried and the hand-wash location was made closer to the entry & exit, which contributed to simpler movement within the canteen.

The client organization was able to see a 60% reduction in the serving time and the time for searching for a seat was reduced to one fourth the original

Reducing Number of Emails:

The procurement executive’s day summed up the information overload that we live in. The executive would get about 400 emails on an average every day! The procurement head asked how lean could solve this problem.

It was evident that the number of emails was only a symptom of an underlying problem and the first step was classifying the emails into categories. An astounding 44% of the teams were within team where, out of the team of 6, 4 were sitting close to each other. The data showed that 75% of the emails were just “FYI” and no action was required.

Where the process needed only 4 hours for actual work, it took more than 11 days to process a request from the business. One third of the time was lost in waiting. Activities like confirming the requirements, transporting information between vendors and business contributed almost 40% of the over all 11 days.

The team assessed each activity in the process and created a list of potential opportunities, which will result in reduced time for response by the procurement team. The ease and impact of each potential solution were analyzed helping the team to prioritize each solution.

Solutions were tested in rapid succession and the results were encouraging. A visual board was introduced to ease out communication between the team members with a daily meeting time to update status. A template was designed to ensure the requirements are captured at the first instance itself that also reduced the need for follow up. Verbal requests were immediately captured through an email. Face to face discussions were encouraged with the procurement team facilitating discussions between vendor, legal team and business wherever possible. Sending an email today is common practice – that often happens without thinking.

The improved process immediately showed impact with the reduced number of emails in the procurement executive’s inbox when it finally stood at 64.

Experiences such as these and more have consistently shown that principles of lean have the ability to simplify not only the processes but bring about a difference in the thinking process itself. This thinking process is not restricted to the shop floor but deserves to be brought out to its rightful place – the mind.

 Vishnupriya Sharma Thirumale

Senior Consultant & Change Agent