One of the negative comments I hear about the lean approach is that it is unfocused or a shotgun approach that does not have an impact to the bottom line. Some will even argue that a Six Sigma approach is better because it focuses on high impact projects but takes too long to show results. Before long, a hybrid version called Lean Six Sigma is promoted as the best of both worlds. In my experience, if we spent all this energy in these debates towards any improvement actions at gemba, you would be miles ahead on your lean journey.
I will not perpetuate this debate here because that would be muda. However, I would like to help some of the lean leaders defend against the unfocused or shotgun approach attacks. To be fair, many companies that are just starting their lean journey have so many opportunities for improvement (visible evidence of the 7 wastes everywhere you turn) that we call these places "target rich environments". It's easy to just jump in and start making improvements without setting a priorities.
But before you jump, here are a few simple kaizen priorities that might make a difference for a bottom line impact.
Priority 1 Kaizen your bottleneck station first
If you don't know what is your bottleneck station, find it. There are many ways to find your bottleneck: all the inventory is piled in front of it, people downstream are waiting on it, it has the most overtime, it's a top maintenance priority, etc. By improving this station first, your value stream/throughput is immediately improved. Both the customer and bottom line are positively impacted.
Priority 2 Kaizen the newest bottleneck station next
The effects are the same as above. You should continue this cycle of improving your bottleneck station every time it is shifted by improvements to the previous bottleneck station.
Priority 3 Kaizen the hardest job in your operation
Like your bottleneck station, you should locate the hardest job in your operation. To find it, just check for some tell tale signs: the lowest seniority people are usually on it, this job has the highest turnover, this job has the most absenteeism, most employees' complaints can come from this job, the job may even be so tough that shop floor myths and legends surround it. If you still cannot find it, just ask each of your employees. A kaizen at this job will improve employee morale, improve quality at this station and also make a visible, bottom line improvement. Your goal is to make this job easy.
Priority 4 Kaizen the easiest job in your operation
At first, this may seem counter intuitive to priority 3. But take a closer look at your easiest job. This job is a candidate for combination with other tasks within the value stream. Everybody considers it the job to have or the highest seniority people flock to it. Your goal is to eliminate it as a stand alone task.
Priority 5 Kaizen your top seller
The 80/20 rule applies here. Go for for top seller, biggest service, your bread and butter product, the thing that makes your company stand out. By improving this top seller, you make a distinctive and highly visible impact. Your customer will benefit and your competitors will be running to catch up. One caution: This will make many people in your company extremely uncomfortable and they may have a strong desire not to mess with a winner. It might take some persuading to get support on this priority. But even Toyota improves the Camry!