A few thoughts on lean

Posted on 26 Aug 2011 by The Manufacturer

The new editor of TM's sister publication, the Lean Management Journal, shares his ideas on lean and current affairs.

This was my first week as editor of the Lean Management Journal, and what a week. Working to put together the next issue of the magazine, I’ve had a chance to get in touch with several very interesting people.

As a non-expert, it’s amazing to learn so many new things about lean in such a short time (slight headaches aside). The past few years have been characterised by economic and social uncertainty, which is far from over, and it is impressive to see so many examples of businesses that have been able to face these difficulties thanks to the implementation of lean. This set of principles, though simply common sense – or so it seems to me – have set many companies off on some truly inspiring journeys, both in the UK and abroad.

Whatever happened to common sense? I think few
would argue that the lean toolset is anything but a set of straightforward and logical ideas put at the service of business to improve and, finally, achieve excellence. So why is it that so many fail to operate within logical lean boundaries?

Historical mistakes and rising complexity have a part
to play. But the answer that many will give is that not every company has the resources to implement a proper lean programme, with dedicated resources for the rationalisation of the business. For small companies in particular this must seem out of reach.

But Mark Pulman, managing director of successful SME, IG Doors, begs to differ. In his interview with me he talked me through the structure behind the lean implementation at IG Doors. It’s an example which ought to bring optimism to other small firms and one you can read more about in the September/October issue of LMJ.

It’s not always a matter of resources, but it is always a matter of culture. Lean requires the involvement of people at all levels.

It is clear that this can only happen with unwavering support from leadership, which is the topic the next issue of LMJ concentrates on. Contributing to the journal are a number of practitioners and experts who give their frank opinion on issues like organisational readiness, the traits of leaders and the important role of leadership in reshaping a company’s focus around the voice of the customer. I am also delighted to have a contribution by Bob Emiliani, Professor at the Central Connecticut State University, historian Peter Seymour and Pauline Found, senior research associate at Cardiff Business School. These experts in their field have co-authored an article on the history of the concept of flow.

Although it is something I’ve only briefly touched on over the past five days, I am also fascinated by the opportunities lean can offer to institutions such as governments.

Anticipation in markets worldwide is almost palpable today, as Bernanke prepares to deliver a keynote speech at the Federal Reserve symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming: will this mean there is going to be a new stimulus package to try and restart the American economy?

Money alone cannot solve the several issues facing the global economy, and I think this has become quite evident over the years following the credit crunch. It may be time to bring national and international policies to a new level, and cutting waste should be a fundamental part of any new set of measures. After all, a strive-for-excellence approach is more desirable than the putting-a-patch-on-problems one, which has been deployed way too often in many countries.

Take Italy, for example. The boot-shaped country is rarely used as an example of efficiency (which for me, an Italian expat, is often sad to hear), but at least one of the propositions within the cuts the government is planning to make in order to re-inject funds in the nation’s empty coffers seems to go in the right direction: the elimination of provinces with less than 300,000 inhabitants and of municipalities with less than 1,000 residents. The amount of waste (and red tape) local government creates in Italy is massive, and if actually deployed this measure might end up benefiting the country as a whole. I don’t know about you, but to me this is a good example of lean applied to government.

There are many lessons to be learned from businesses that have made lean part of their daily routine and way of thinking: one of the comment pieces in the next issue of LMJ is written by Rhoda Avanzado, of Westminster City Council, and outlines the difficulties that were first met in trying to make staff at the council understand the implementation of lean would not mean their jobs were at risk. And how is that different from a manufacturing company trying to instil an interest in continuous improvement in its workforce while convincing them it is simply a way to make things work more efficiently, which ultimately benefits everybody?

Roberto Priolo