Dan Jones: Learning to work together

Posted on 8 Oct 2009 by The Manufacturer

Collaborative performance is central to lean thinking. Why, then, is it so often ignored?

On our trip to Japan to launch The Machine that Changed the World in 1990, the Chairman of Toyota, Dr. Soichiro Toyoda, told me: “The only competitors we really fear are the Germans, if they ever learn to work together”. I have used this quote many times since to provoke and challenge German audiences.

However, I am coming to think this represents a profound comment about all of us that throws light on a fundamental threshold with lean practice that we ignore at our peril.

Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to think that those
who master the art of getting people from different
perspectives to really work together to significantly
improve performance or solve a clearly defined problem will be the winners in the next decade. Turning a blind eye to these opportunities is not simply due to the growing individualisation of our society, but because our modern management systems measure and incentivise departmental or business unit performance – on the false assumption that keeping every asset busy adds up to the optimum performance of the whole.

Time and again lean thinkers demonstrate this falls considerably short of what is possible. I was reminded about this when talking to a meeting of plant managers from a global multinational. While they are making good progress with lean inside their plants — reducing throughput time from 30 days to 4 days, for instance — they readily admitted that their supply chains were still between 200 and 300 days long. But, crucially, that was the responsibility of another department!

It did not take long to demonstrate how it would be
possible to reduce the 200-300 days for most of their
products to 20-30 days, thus saving enormous amounts of cash tied up in inventories. Moreover, the extra cost of managing the armies of planners correcting forecasts would further reduce outgoings, quite apart from the capital saved in not having to build more capacity. I am certain they could increase sales by responding to every customer on-time every-time with no invoice errors. We will see, however, whether their top management has the vision to give the responsibility for achieving this to a value stream manager leading a cross-departmental team, and stand willing to resolve the inevitable conflicts between departmental objectives and the needs of the supply chain.

This is no different in principle from our current experiment making a value stream manager responsible for the door to door flow of emergency patients through a hospital. Such a remit undeniably challenges existing management structures and behaviours. However, department heads and senior clinicians are becoming more convinced that it is the only way to link up lean improvement activities across the hospital, thus reaching their performance targets.

Beyond the discharge lounge of the hospital, however, lies another challenge. Many patients need packages of care to be in place before they can be discharged. Yet this involves several different government organisations, who inevitably have their own interests and procedures.

Getting these aligned is a major distraction for discharge nurses and a significant reason for patients having to stay in hospital longer than necessary.
Many years ago there was a movement for “joined up government” that seems to have disappeared.
Nonetheless, I recently heard a story from a group of local government agencies and departments who had linked up to address the growing problem of the long
term unemployed in their area. With top management
support, they brought together a team which started by
collectively defining the specific problem to be solved for this group, then looked at all the steps of the process of getting them the support they needed, and finally how this would change the way they needed to work together across their organisations to deliver such a mandate.

In all kinds of situations lean can help to define the problem or performance gap to be closed. It can similarly help to design the right processes to solve or close it, and can help to focus the work of everyone involved most effectively using lean visual project management. This is the only way to break through the constraints of our current management systems and organisational boundaries and realise the full potential of lean.