We are sometimes asked when is the best time to start a Lean programme or project, if we’re feeling light-hearted we may reply ’18 months ago’. If we are being slightly more serious our response would be: ‘Why not now?’ If we pause long enough we are met with a barrage of reasons as to precisely why not now, all of which are common issues and all of which can appear perfectly reasonable.
We frequently meet leaders who are convinced of the need to improve their performance and service and to reduce costs, but feel that it’s just ‘not the right time’ to start a major transformation programme. The very reasons they cite, and we will explore each of them below, are the same reasons why now is as good a time as any, it’s just a matter of dismantling the barriers…
Common reasons for delay
The most frequently given reasons for not applying Lean to create improvement are as follows:
- We have too many other major projects on the go
- It’s year-end
- We’re doing appraisals
- It’s the summer/Easter/Christmas/half-term holidays
- There’s a new IT implementation coming up
- We’re moving premises
- We’re re-structuring
- We’re having quite a change of staff.
Given that the basic principles of Lean include focussing all resource into ensuring customers receive value, working in efficient and effective ways and involving all staff in continuous improvement, let’s now examine why some of the reasons given for delay don’t really stand up to scrutiny…
We have too many other projects
One of the reasons that too many projects overwhelm organisations is that there is a lack of prioritisation and coordination. This is then compounded by a lack of measurement, monitoring and integration of projects at a senior level. Implementing Lean itself provides the solution to the lack of strategic overview as a Lean diagnosis helps leaders decide what must be tackled first in order to achieve their strategic objectives. The development of a Master Schedule shows visually how all the organisation’s change projects link and impact on one another. It also provides the means to track performance and hold people to account for progress.
If Lean itself is seen as just another project then any manager could be forgiven for thinking that it’s not the right time. Lean is not a project. Lean is an approach that can transform an organisation and make the other projects easier to implement, not more difficult, and Lean tools can help find solutions in specific projects.
Have you ever listed all the projects and major pieces of work in your organisation and found most conclude at the end of March? Not only are teams busy working on finalising business plans and budgets, but also having to bring in projects, complete appraisals and use up annual leave. Is it any wonder that both business as usual and an improvement approach such as Lean get pushed off the agenda! It doesn’t have to be like this, but unless you draw a line in the sand and start to dismantle the complexity of March, prioritising and spacing out work that doesn’t need to be done within the same month, then your troubles will continue. While it is perfectly legitimate that some managers and finance staff will be consumed with closing the books on the year-end, but much of the other work can be shifted. Lean processes and planning help schedule work in a realistic way.
We’re doing appraisals
Part of the self-inflicted pain of year-end as described above is that we tend to plan an annual cycle of appraisals, with everyone on exactly the same cycle and often ending in March. Historically this has been scheduled to coincide with pay grading, annual budgets and promotion rounds. For some managers or team leaders with large spans of control and cumbersome appraisal approaches year-end becomes a nightmare of endless appraisal meetings, requiring long-preparation, exhausting meetings and post-meeting administration. In a Lean organisation, performance is measured and monitored differently, with briefer and more frequent opportunities for feedback and performance improvement. Performance is more evident and visible, with the individual takes far greater personal responsibility. Even if therefore you are forced to conclude appraisals for grading/salary purposes towards year end, the entire process can be made more efficient, with more meaningful exchanges taking place throughout the year, in-depth reviews with individuals being more evenly spaced, so that ‘year-end’.
It’s the Summer/Easter/Christmas/half-term holidays
Holiday periods can present problems if not fully managed, but given that the entire year has holiday periods throughout, this is not really a strong reason for delaying Lean work for more than a week or two. It is important to have the right people present, but reality means we sometimes have to accept that not every individual is going to be available. Careful scheduling allows us to make the most of the situation.
There’s a new IT implementation
This one should definitely ring alarm bells. If you are implementing a new IT system, not only should you have considered current processes impacted by the change, but the cultural aspects too. Many organisations and individuals we seem to place enormous faith in new IT systems, expecting them to solve all of their problems in a flash. IT has tremendous power to help streamline process for our service users, reducing cycle times and duplication, but only if used properly and in line with, rather than instead of the proper consideration of value streams. Using a Lean approach alongside IT changes will only enhance your outcomes. One of our clients insists that process or function goes through a Lean review before any information system changes are made.
We’re moving premises
Again – rather than see a relocation as an obstacle, why not use a proven Lean technique, 5S, which creates an orderly working environment (if you want to know more read the case study at https://www.ad-esse.com/Resources/documents/case_studies/Eastsussex_adultcare_5S.pdf). Clearly there will be some disruption during a move, but don’t let it become the be all and end all. See it as an opportunity to do things differently that will have advantages for everyone, especially as is often the case, your new premises are smaller.
Many organisations across the public and not-for-profit sectors have restructured over the last few years – some from necessity of cost-saving, some to realign staffing with changes in service provision, and some a combination of both. A number of organisations have told us they would like to apply Lean but thought they should wait because of the need to restructure. In our experience, a rapid Lean diagnostic can only aid the process of restructure as it will help you identify real scope of key processes, actual demand, priorities and waste. It will help direct resource where it is needed rather than potentially diverting staff into areas that are no longer of strategic or operational importance. It will also improve the efficiency and effectiveness of services reviewed,
We’re having quite a change of staff
You may have some periods of stability but there will always be staff changes. A slight delay until some new key staff members are in post may be an advantage, but undertaking a diagnostic sooner rather than later is a way of helping new staff understand the organisation, particularly from a Lean perspective, and gets their ownership from the very start in bringing about change.
The way forward
In a perfect world there would be no obstacles to starting a Lean programme or project. In reality there will always be some reason not to start, but waiting for the ideal moment will probably mean you never start. The only way to become Lean is to start doing it, and it doesn’t have to be a whole programme; a toe-in-the-water diagnostic or small review may be the right start you need to test your thoughts and see some initial progress. Try reframing: rather than saying ‘We’re too busy to implement Lean’, how about ‘We’re so frantic we need to save time!