New column: Lean thinking for solar companies

This is the first article in a series that guest author Pamela Cargill will write for Insider. This series of articles will help solar trade ally contractors create value for customers by eliminating waste within their processes and creating a culture of continuous improvement.

Article 1: Introduction to Lean thinking

Lean is a total system for continuous process improvement, lowering operating expenses, and most importantly creating and responding quickly to product and service needs that a customer truly values. Lean programs focus on eliminating waste within a process, and respecting and leveraging the most critical expertise and intelligence strengths of a company’s employees and customers.

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The Lean journey is a continuous improvement cycle that never ends. Core to its mindset is to constantly strive for perfection while driving out waste from a system and process. The five steps in the cycle help keep us focused on the goal—never stop improving, never stop finding new ways to create customer value.

Identify value
Value seems like a nebulous word, but we use it describe the transformations to the product or service we are offering within the eyes of the customer. What sets apart value from non-value added activities is that the customer must be willing to “pay” for it. To fit within the cost structure of the company, it must be done correctly the first time. What you value or believe is valuable may be different from what your customer values. Only by putting yourself in the shoes of the customer journey will you know.

Map project path
Once you understand what the customer values, you can follow the cycle of product/service delivery throughout your company. Where are the delays? Where is someone operating on the project and not adding value? In a future article, I will take a deeper look at what it means to add value or not add value so you can learn to see this for yourself.

Create velocity
Once you understand your project path, including all the complexities that challenge smooth project delivery, you can start to surgically remove waste and speed up project delivery. One of the top troubles in solar project delivery comes down to managing the handoffs and associated timelines while managing clear and accurate customer communication. Quickly banishing waste is key to effective Lean implementations.

Let the customer drive
Many Lean implementations call this step “establish flow.” This step is about ensuring that each step in the process is getting the right amount of input at the right time to continue smooth delivery of that product or service. When we say “customer” here, we don’t just mean the customer who will have a solar project installed at their home. Each employee at your company is a customer of another person in the company who operated on the project before them. When everyone can see each other as a customer, quality comes in to focus.

Continue to improve
Because Lean is a journey that never ends, even when the most challenging soft costs are contained or rework is reduced, there will be new challenges and problems to face. A culture of continuous improvement will continue to create value for its customers—internally and externally—and drive low-cost referrals.

Start today
Over the course of the coming year, this series will provide you an opportunity to learn how to use Lean techniques and mindset to run your business and create customer value.