By Hannah Wallace November 30, 2005

If you want to reach new customers without adding a slew of new workers, if you're looking to grow your business without growing your overhead, or if you just want an opportunity to network with like-minded business leaders who are interested in learning how to do more with less, you might want to check out the newly formed LEAN Consortium. Organized by the Specialty Manufacturing Cluster of Sarasota's Economic Development Corporation and supported by SAMA, the Sarasota Manatee Manufacturers Association, the consortium accepts all interested businesses as members.

The LEAN concept was originally created to rebuild Japan after World War II, and it offers a toolbox of methods to improve efficiency, facilitate growth, and increase cash flow and profitability. Gemesis Corp. chief operating officer John Clement, who chairs the consortium, says, "LEAN's roots are in manufacturing, but the principles apply to any type of business. It doesn't matter if you make widgets or operate a sales structure, LEAN can help you grow your business."

The Consortium, which had its first formal meeting in June, had already signed up 26 Sarasota and Manatee companies, including manufacturers as well as financial services companies, real estate brokerages, high-tech companies and organizations involved in the biotech fields.

Clement has taken on the role of the organization's "sensei," a Japanese term meaning "teacher." He coaches companies on the system's "5S" strategies: seiri (sort), to separate out all unnecessary items and eliminate them from the workplace; seiton (straighten), to arrange all essential items so that they are clearly marked and easily accessible; seiso (sanitize), to clean each machine and the work environment to maintain immaculate cleanliness; seiketsu (systematize), to make cleaning and organizing a routine practice in each work shift; and shitsuke (sustain), to maintain a commitment to the previous four steps and provide a constantly improving process.

Clement points out that even small improvements in operations can have a significant impact on a company's bottom line. For example, reorganizing office supplies can cut down on waste and save time. "Envelopes, letterhead, staples, Post-Its-if all that stuff is tucked away in drawers and cabinets, you can waste three or four minutes just trying to track them down," says Clement. "That's inefficient. Instead, if you incorporate the 5S strategy and arrange everything in logical order, and then label the drawers and cabinets, you can find what you need right away. That is LEAN thinking."

Another LEAN strategy involves creating an organization chart. Look at your organizational structure without focusing on names in boxes. Instead, focus on the functional purposes of the boxes-what does your organization really need to operate efficiently?

"A lot of times, companies have positions that were created based on the person, rather than the function," Clement explains. "You don't know what to do with Barbie. She's a great employee but there's no real job for her to do. By looking at your org chart, you might find that there really isn't a place for Barbie. It's not easy. A few people might not have a chair to sit in when the music stops playing, and you may even find that you need to add positions. But LEAN means that you start to think strategically. And the strategic thing to do may be to eliminate unnecessary positions regardless of who occupies them."

Clement says switching to LEAN thinking takes courage and strategic vision. And he warns companies not to take any of the LEAN methods too far. "If you take anything to an extreme, it can be devastating and harmful. There is always the danger of getting too LEAN, of people getting burned out. You don't want to push existing resources beyond their limits. There has to be balance. But if done right, LEAN can be immensely powerful, a lot of fun and financially very rewarding."

LEAN Consortium, contact Nicholas Ladikos at the Sarasota EDC, (941) 309-1200 ext. 207 or [email protected].

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