This article explores why you really need to experience Lean Thinking for yourselves in order to achieve results.
In the course of our work as Lean Thinking specialists in public, not-for-profit and charity organisations, we are often asked the following questions by keen, well-meaning, yet Lean Thinking novices:
“Can you arrange a visit to somewhere like us where they’re doing Lean, so we can replicate what they do?”
“Can you provide us with a standard Lean process for x,y,z?”
“Can you point us to benchmark Lean processes similar to ours?”
“Are there any 1 (2,3)-day training courses so we’ll be able to do Lean?”
Unfortunately the individuals asking these questions may be disappointed because the short answer to all of them is ‘no’!
We do of course facilitate networking visits and meetings with successful Lean Thinking clients of ours, who have achieved excellent results. We can direct people to clients with efficient and effective processes, we are happy to help develop clients to use approaches, tools and techniques. We know what ‘good’ looks like.
But none of these alone (or even in combination) will enable those new to Lean Thinking to be able to become Lean organisations. Visits, observation and hearing others’ stories will almost undoubtedly motivate and inspire, will give clues and identify some key issues, but there is no short cut. Seeing what others have done is not enough, and cannot simply be emulated.
Here are the reasons why:
Every single organisation really is unique. It may do the same sorts of things as others, it may operate in the same environment, it may face the same challenges. There may be vast numbers of similarities and lessons can be learned and shared, as general principles. However, every organisation will have its own history, its own people with their personalities, different structures, different local factors, different strategies and priorities. Trying to transplant one approach to Lean Thinking or worse still, trying to ‘copy’ or transplant processes will have very short-lived outcomes.
You can’t run before you can walk
Applying Lean Thinking, be it an organisation-wide transformation, or a review of one process or service, involves not only incremental change but incremental learning, it’s progressive. You have to acquire some basic skills and become comfortable with fundamental principles before moving on to more complex and sophisticated techniques. For example, the technique of Overall Effectiveness (OE) which measures productivity, usually at team level, is incredibly powerful, giving front line teams ownership and control over increasing their productivity. It can be learned fairly rapidly, but requires several other things to be in place – appropriate key metrics for availability, performance and quality, a mechanism for those metrics to be visible and shared daily or weekly, team problem-solving skills, and more importantly, a mind-set where the team understand and accept the value of their taking control. This cannot be ‘transplanted’ in, the team has to build towards it.
Just as individuals and teams acquire understanding and skills in Lean Thinking, there is a lot to be said about collective learning, and how an organisation changes over time to develop its knowledge. Cultures change as a result of the aggregation of many small and different actions over a period of time; organisations don’t become Lean overnight, each organisation has to learn to become Lean. Seeing a few positive changes in the early stages provides the motivation, strength and courage to make the next changes. Simple tools that change situations, such as establishing Information Centres and daily meetings, tends to lead a change in behaviours (people have to turn up daily and actually discuss performance and root cause problems). This is turn leads to changes in attitude – ‘Those daily meetings are helpful – we got something done about x,y,z that’s been niggling us for ages’. ‘Making our performance visible makes it easier to headoff problems before they occur’.
The experience is bonding
Applying Lean Thinking is a bonding experience for teams and organisations as a whole. It gives people a sense of purpose and allows them to progress from understanding root-cause problems and their current state, to actually being able to tackle them and create genuinely sustainable improved performance. Simply trying to copy someone else’s solution is likely to focus on the wrong issues and will take a lot of effort to ‘import’ something that will most like fizzle out, causing more frustration ultimately.
It takes time
To become a truly Lean organisation will take several years. Applying and bedding in changes in a process or service review may only take a few months. Either way, there is no real short cut. Adopting someone else’s approach may seem like a good idea, but it’s a bit like a crash diet – instant results that then fade fairly rapidly, often leaving you in a worse position that when you started. It really does take time to build the knowledge, the skills, the tools and the environment where you can become more ambitious in your transformation. It also takes planning and energy that cannot usually be conjured up overnight when you have a service to provide day-in-day-out.
We have seen (and supported) many public sector, not-for-profit and charity organisations successfully apply Lean Thinking. As a result of their work they provide better services to their customers, have reduced waste and saved money. But every one of them has put in time and effort. We strongly believe in the value of sharing experiences, helping one another learn and offering guidance, but we cannot arrive at any worthwhile destination without making the journey. And we’re all still on the journey, with no ‘final’ destination, simply travellers on a Lean path!