Roberto Priolo’s lean column: Lean on me

Posted on 10 Jun 2013

Roberto Priolo, editor of Lean Management Journal, challenges process improvement professionals to embrace the devil they do not yet know.

Roberto Priolo, Editor of the Lean Management Journal
Roberto Priolo, Editor of the Lean Management Journal

To understand and correctly apply lean thinking, we have to take a completely different view of our organisations.

Lean challenges what we think we know and the results of this challenge process are often staggering, sometimes discomforting, for those involved.

It is human nature to stick to what we are familiar with – better the devil you know – we prefer to feel comfortable in a predictable world where, if there are problems, at least they are familiar. If change does impact this comfort zone, we prefer that it should happen slowly and within set limits.

It’s not a wrong approach. However, lean calls for boldness – everywhere – and lean leaders must become confident in dealing with the unfamiliar and the unexpected.

Following value

Most lean programmes start in a defined implementation area where low hanging fruit is easy to identify and quick wins can be grabbed. But in an ideal world lean would be adopted across the entire organisation, and its supply chain, in a transformational step.

For it is simply impossible to really assure customer delight if there is limited visibility of your supply chain. And impossible that you are really taking a product to market in the most efficient way if engineers in product development do not share a lean ethos with production and other functions.

Value flows horizontally, across departments, functions, and job roles. However, organisations are characterised by vertical, hierarchical structures with layers of power and bureaucracy. Changing this paradigm is not easy. It takes time and caution should be used at all times. Doing too much too soon can be counteractive.

But it is essential, once we are past the idea of lean as a box full of tools, to see the whole value stream, end to end. Lean is infectious and can naturally spread once it is successfully applied in one part of an organisation. But not all areas will move at the same speed and complex interactions between functions and individuals can mean that a process of fine tuning lean operations will sometimes mean taking a step back as well as steps forward.

The upcoming issue of Lean Management Journal, the July/August edition, will analyse how different companies have got around this problem and started the move from vertical to horizontal organisational structures.

Solar, a wholesaler with operations around Europe, will discuss supporting cross-functional and cross-departmental communication, while Gwendolyn Galsworth (a leading global expert on visual management) will explain how visuality can help in this undertaking. We will also feature the story of the Stockholm City Archive, explaining how it transitioned from strict hierarchy to people empowerment.

Highlights in LMJ July/August:

  • Solar provides a case study on creating horizontal organisational structures that support value flow
  • Stockholm City Archive showcases how to break free from tradition and empower value creation
  • Gwendolyn Goldsworth demonstrates how visual management can overcome organisational hierarchies

Small but perfectly formed

The June issue of Lean Management Journal looks at how smaller organisations can apply lean. The case studies featured highlighted how, quite often, being a small company can actually represent an asset rather than an obstacle to success.

With a limited number of people to get on board, Australia-based Black Widow – for example – was able to dramatically change the way it operates. Making changes in family-run firms can stir up politics, but once decisions are made they are often implemented with unique strength and conviction.

The edition also proved there is no limit to what lean can do, and to where it can be adopted – Nick Rich of Cardiff Metropolitan University discussed how it can even revolutionise social housing by introducing a new way to undertake building maintenance.

Lean is a strange beast. There is no one recipe to follow for success and even for seasoned practitioners who think they’ve mastered it, idiosyncrasies in companies and changes in the business environment mean that the effect of the methodology on operations and performance will always have surprises in store. I hope the next issue will help readers become more comfortable with the devil they do not yet know.