The speed of light

Posted on 23 Sep 2011 by The Manufacturer

Roberto Priolo on a lean summit in Italy and science.

This morning, scientists of the CERN facility in Geneva have announced they were able to fire a subatomic particle at a speed greater than the speed of light. Einstein would be in shock. The world’s scientific community certainly is.

A single experiment has the potential to overthrow one of the most important scientific discoveries in man’s history, and to have physics books rewritten. The Opera experiment was repeated over 15,000 times before reaching this morning’s successful result.

It is somehow astounding to think what mankind has been able to achieve in history, and yet there are certain things, arguably much much easier than breaking the speed of light, that we still struggle to do: many companies still find it hard, for example, to make their processes more efficient.

The CERN experiment is a good example of the importance of constantly challenging the way things work. This is, after all, what continuous improvement means: striving to always do things better is the only way to ensure the future of our businesses.

This has been a busy week for me. I was at the Lean Society Summit in Vicenza, Italy, on Tuesday and Wednesday.

I thought I knew my country way too well to expect anything more than disappointment when it comes to leaning out and making things easier and ultimately better. After all, I grew up in a country where, every day, I experienced more bureaucracy than people from any other country will ever see in a lifetime.

Lean and Italy didn’t strike me as a good combination. I was wrong.
What I saw at the summit was engaged attendees asking many questions to lecturers, lean gurus like Dan Jones and John Shook addressing a passionate crowd and interesting learning sessions throughout the event.

Listening to Jones and Shook speaking was a tremendous experience, but there is nothing new there. The really surprising thing was to witness the commitment and enthusiasm of so many delegates interested in starting a lean journey or learning new ways to keep it successful. It was very good for my Italian pride to learn that, for example, the Kimberly-Clark plant in Alanno, Southern Italy, is seen as a lean model for the company’s other facilities worldwide, including those in the UK.

It occured to me that maybe Italy is finally waking up from the numbness it’s been in for too long. There is still a very long way to go, but it looks like the country has finally understood the importance of supporting the so-called “made in Italy” brand through a structured approach that helps SMEs (the very core of Italian economy) thrive. The theme of the summit was, in fact, “Made in Lean Italy”.

Yesterday, I was at Cranfield University to attend a workshop on lean product and process development. PhD students of the university have been working on an interesting research which aims to highlight the current state of lean PPD and see where the opportunities to make engineering design leaner are. One of the best parts of the event was the debate that followed the presentations: once again, I heard opinionated comments throughout the day. The atmosphere was less enthusiastic than in Vicenza (and I did miss the espresso), but this crowd was probably tougher to please, lean product development being something so difficult to define to begin with.

Too often lean is looked at as something easy to understand and deploy. We all know it isn’t. With the right mindset, however, we can do anything.

One day, not very far thanks to people like Cranfield’s students, lean product and process development might have a clear, well-defined definition and a set of practical tools that will make knowledge-based activities something lean can effictively deal with. One day, probably a bit further in the future, Italy could even become an example of lean implementation in sectors going from healthcare to government and manufacturing.

When that day comes, it will be our ‘breaking the speed of light’. Come to think of it, it is getting there that will be even more fulfilling for us. After all we are talking continuous improvement, and sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.

Roberto Priolo
Editor, Lean Management Journal