Yes you can, people associate lean with nailing together bits for cars on small benches where every step, twitch of the elbow or 0.00001 second of delay is critical to their high volume customers- essentially people, carrying out mass production.
The process industry oil, gas, paper, steel etc are generally made up of huge machines that need to run 24/7 where the slightest error cost millions of £/$ in lost production. Lean can be applied in this environment but we must take a different approach. We need to focus much more on the asset and not the individual. We need to focus on optimising performance, process yield, proactive maintenance, CAPEX and OPEX, exemplar HS&E, understanding of critical tasks, and ensuring competence .
We may need to create various levels of problem and make certain parts of the process off limits to individuals. Six sigma can work for the project based change but good old fashioned 5 why still has its place around standard work. The diagnostic approach I use is to consider customer specifications then understand how these are deployed and monitored throughout the process. The beaten up and often abused automotive tools of FMEA and Control plan provide a fantastic approach for us to structure our work. In my most successful assignments we have managed to integrate the maintenance and operations functions, creating a shared goal of process stability. If you need a bargaining tool to bring everyone together just talk about minimising risk instead of creating flow. Nobody wants to flatten a village, poison a river, incur a 2 week stop or downgrade a premium batch to commodity.
Who works for who?
I was introduced to a new phrase in Detroit recently, Carpet walkers. Carpet Walkers are managers they wear Chinos, drink coffee, carry mobile phones, go to meetings, love spread sheets, speak a language that has acronyms at every 4th word and always walk on carpets. They are very much in charge, usually live upstairs and everybody knows who works for who….you work for them. The purpose of the business is to serve the Carpet walkers, carry out their well thought out plans and ensure they remain well paid.
How many business have Carpet walkers, almost all I would say. How many of these add value? How many of these have the respect of the workforce? How many of these last more than 5 years?
The really successful management teams exist to serve the business, they are at home on concrete or carpet, they sometimes come to work in safety boots, know how to gain respect without a neck tie, ask questions, worry about engagement and alignment, work as a team. They work for the business and their role is to ensure the front line staff succeed rather than suffer.