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How to Embrace Lean Methodology: 5 Tips for Small Businesses

Want to optimize business processes and boost your bottom line? Most people agree that the best way to do this is to eliminate waste and better allocate your resources.

For some businesses, transitioning to lean methodology is the right approach. Going lean can foster better team collaboration, improve customer relationships, and help businesses continually improve.

But is this framework right for you? Let’s find out.

Here’s why small businesses should consider adopting lean methodology and how to get started.

  • What is lean methodology?
  • What are the benefits of lean methodology?
  • 5 tips for implementing lean methodology

What is lean methodology?

Lean methodology is a way of enhancing the people, resources, and work an organization puts in to generate value for customers.

The term “lean methodology” comes from the manufacturing world—specifically from the Toyota Production system in Japan. Now it’s filtered into businesses and workplaces across different industries.

This methodology has become particularly popular in software and product development. With multiple rounds of development and the need to iterate or test product features, lean methodology is a solid choice for this field.

There are five core principles of lean methodology. Understanding these core principles will help you identify whether lean methodology is a fit for your business.

  1. Find value. Identify the team’s work value. Remember that in lean, value is determined by anything your customer is willing to pay for. It’s important to differentiate between value-adding and waste-adding activities. Consider the end goal of your efforts and what the customer gets out of it.
  2. Map your value stream. Visualize each step of the end product’s journey to the customer. Map it out on a kanban board like Focus Commit or a similar visual workflow so your team and customers can check in on its progress when they need it.
  3. Create flow. Review how tasks move through your workflow. Identify and eliminate any bottlenecks to ensure continuous progress.
  4. Establish pull. Start new work only when there’s demand and your team has the availability to complete it.
  5. Seek constant improvement. Aim to consistently improve every process in your team. You can do this by prioritizing activities that generate the highest value for customers while removing activities that don’t (i.e., waste).

What are the benefits of lean methodology?

Following lean methodology is all about reducing waste and maximizing team efficiency to deliver consistent customer value. When implemented correctly, lean helps teams refine their processes and continuously improve their efficiency and effectiveness.

1. Lower costs and budget surprises

Reducing waste means saving money. Overhiring, overproducing, and bottlenecks are all costly and wasteful. This waste can be reduced through improved management of systems and processes. When businesses think about the big picture of their resources and how they’re using them, they’re able to contract the right number of employees, materials, and working hours at any time.

Implementing lean methodology means boosting efficiency––this increases any business’s bottom line. By consistently tracking processes, tasks, and budgets, you can eliminate costs that don’t add value.

2. Fewer bottlenecks

Bottlenecks or processes that don’t match your workflow can throw off your project and make it hard to hit deadlines. Using lean, tasks aren’t randomly assigned to team members. Instead, team members collaborate to make sure work is evenly distributed and deadlines are realistic.

Teams discuss possible bottlenecks in advance so they can be sorted out before they become a drag on resources and delay work. Since team capacity and work-in-progress items are consistently projected, reviewed, and modified with lean, businesses can forecast bottlenecks in advance.

3. Better team engagement

Disengaged team members can drag down the overall productivity and profitability of any organization. Lean methodology puts teams at the center of product development. Under lean, employees stay in consistent contact with managers about how their tasks are going and how the process could improve.

As teams get more involved in the process, they become more actively engaged––and more likely to participate, share and implement board feedback, and care about their work.

4. Stronger customer relationships

Lean methodology prioritizes customer needs. Progress in lean is evaluated according to the value delivered to the customer as opposed to the number of tasks ticked off.

Every project starts and ends with the customer. Frequent feedback loops improve communication between customers and businesses. Instead of one feedback session at the end of the project, businesses collect feedback throughout the product development process. That means the final product should match exactly what the customer needs. On top of that, all this customer communication helps build stronger relationships.

5. Continuous improvement mindset

Lean encourages continuous process refinement and improvement mindset. It’s not about setting a process and forgetting about it. Even for ultra-efficient and successful businesses, there’s always room to improve and deliver more value to the customer.

This helps team members strive for improvement, too. Teams start to expect regular feedback from managers and leaders. With every iteration and feedback round, the team continues to expand its skill set and improve work processes.

5 tips for implementing lean methodology in small businesses

Embracing lean methodology can be a big change for most businesses. For that reason, it’s best to think carefully about whether this framework is right for your team and business. If you’re ultimately ready to give lean methodology a try, follow some of these core tips for a smoother transition.

1. Start slowly

Transitioning to lean methodology will require your team to adapt to new processes and workflows. Rather than force a sudden change that’s hard to adapt to, it’s best to start slowly. Start by incorporating one or two elements of lean methodology. For example, these could be more frequent feedback sessions with team members and using a kanban board to better track task and workflow progress.

As your team adapts to these changes, ask for their feedback and evaluate any sticking points. The more your team gets comfortable with these changes, the more lean methodology workflows and processes you can start to add.

2. Get organizational buy-in

For lean methodology to work across your business and not just in one small team, you need to get organizational buy-in. That means getting team leaders and managers on board with new workflows and processes. Those at the top of your business have the chance to positively influence other team members and encourage their adaption of new lean processes.

Before attempting to get everyone else on board, make sure senior members of your team are excited about going lean.

3. Create cross-functional teams

Lean methodology shouldn’t be confined to one team in your business—it’s important to develop cross-functional teams. For instance, this could look like engineers contributing to product development projects or getting involved in content marketing.

Having some team overlap can help build an understanding of how everyone fits into the puzzle. Plus, lean methodology won’t end up designated to one sector of the business.

4. Monitor performance

As you adopt lean methodology across your business for different teams, projects, and tasks, be sure to check in regularly on your team’s performance. Are they reaching projected milestones? Hitting deadlines? Do they seem more motivated or less engaged?

Consistently evaluating progress and performance across your business will help you see whether lean methodology is helping or hindering your team. If you find performance is slowing, identify the blockers and focus on enhancing your processes.

5. Focus on long-term improvement

Implementing lean methodology shouldn’t be an overnight project. To get it right and make it easier for your team to adapt, focus on implementing small continuous changes gradually. Think of lean methodology as a long-term investment––not a short-term one-and-done change.

It may take a few projects before you find the right workflows and processes for your team. That’s why it’s a good idea to experiment with a few short pilot projects before you commit to a full-on transformation.

Implement lean methodology today

Lean methodology can be an effective way to boost productivity, engagement, and project success while lowering costs and reducing waste. But it’s not for every business. This framework requires plenty of collaboration, feedback rounds, and monitoring to get right.

If you decide to give lean methodology a try in your business, remember to take it slow and ease both your team and customers into the process. Then if all goes well, consider implementing it across your business in the long term.

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