Roberto Priolo’s lean column: Lean on me

Posted on 4 Apr 2013

Roberto Priolo, editor of Lean Management Journal, on creating impetus for change, with or without a burning platform.

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

Last month I was inundated in questions about February’s general election in Italy. The results gave the country a hung Parliament, caused panic in financial markets and left European leaders scratching their heads as to how they might regain stability and growth.

People were asking me how it was possible that 30% of Italians decided to vote for the coalition led by scandal-prone media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi (oh dear), or that a movement made of common citizens, started as a blog a few years ago, became the number one party in the country.

I am still left utterly baffled and embarrassed when faced with the first question. I can’t answer it. But I am pretty sure I know exactly how former comedian Beppe Grillo and his movement managed to gather so much support.

Simply put, the promise of a revolution and a consequent new course is appealing, especially when things are not going well. In other words, Mr Grillo gave Italy a burning platform.

People in lean know a thing or two about this and in some ways Grillo could be seen as the equivalent of a lean guru, brought in to analyse a company’s current state and help it figure out what measures need to be taken to improve performance. Italy’s endemic corruption – one of the main reasons for the country’s woes and an important point in Grillo’s agenda – can be seen as the waste lean tries to get rid of.

A lean leader will find it easier to bring change about if they can enthuse and engage a workforce that is tired of feeling disillusioned and scared. The same is true for a politician or an activist: Grillo promised Italians a reformed system, based on honesty, transparency and a shared belief that the country can raise from its ashes if it is united and determined.

“The promise of a revolution and a new course is appealing, especially when things are not going well. In other words, Mr Grillo gave Italy a burning platform”Roberto Priolo, Editor, Lean Management Journal

Politics is often described as ‘the art of the possible’ – however, it seems to me that, by gaining 25% of the vote, Grillo achieved the impossible. Lean, too, is capable of bringing extraordinary results to a company that is willing to question itself and change. If people accept how bad a situation is, they will embrace radical measures to address it and a turnaround can be easier to achieve.

This is what has always made those turnaround stories that don’t start with a near-to bankruptcy situation so interesting to me.

While all lean efforts and success stories are commendable, I have always found the companies that have introduced lean without fundamentally needing to – without having a burning platform – incredibly inspiring. Harley-Davidson is an example, and LMJ features a case study on the company in the April issue.

The rest of the April issue focuses on the tools a company can use in its lean implementation. Professor John Bicheno gives an overview of the evolution of lean tools over the years, while Alice Lee from Beth Israeli Deaconess Medical Center in Massachusetts explains how visual management supported the implementation of lean in one of the hospital’s departments.

What is visual management if not an effective way of communicating one’s purpose and progress? Returning to the Italy analogy, Grillo has been able to win the hearts and minds of so many also thanks to a very clever form of political campaigning which relies on his visibility among the people and on the web, rather than through slogans and TV.

Have a clear strategy in mind, communicate it effectively to your people and the results will follow.

No doubt this is easier said than done – lean truisms and myths often blur our ability to communicate directly and effectively. If you are curious to read about this, make sure you get your hands on a copy of the May issue of Lean Management Journal.

To purchase a one-year subscription (ten issues) to Lean Management Journal – for £295 – please email Roberto [email protected]