Lean and systems thinking
Lean and ‘systems thinking’ are concepts which have come to mean ‘all things to all people’. Lean is not ‘mean’ – it is not about paring things back to the bone, asking employees to work harder and doing more with less. In fact, by removing many of the frustrations and time wasters that employees encounter lean can make work a more fulfilling experience.
Powerful insights have been developed over many years of insight into organisational life by systems thinkers like Taiichi Ohno, W. Edwards Deming, Peter Senge and Barry Oshry. It is, perhaps, a tragedy of our times that they have often been interpreted in slavish ways designed to be easily replicable without thinking, to allow consultants to arrive in droves to ‘do lean’ to an organisation, and to build further dependency.
We classify many lean practitioners as ‘robot consultants’ (‘rolling out’ tools across organisations). However there are also ‘ranters’ and ‘revolutionaries’. Ranters have grasped the essential impact of systems thinking but frame it in a context of blame (which sets front-line staff ‘against’ managers, managers ‘against’ ministers etc), and coercive behaviour change (which we believe is ineffective). Revolutionaries believe in a pure version of systems thinking which can tend to try to ‘boil the ocean’ and capture everything in one complex model. They can be good at achieving a shift in thinking in a workshop, but may be weak in delivering the change programme needed to make it happen.
We take a pragmatic approach which we have developed specifically for local government. Services are different from manufacturing and not every tool developed for factories will work in other settings. We understand the negative impact of targets, and understand the need of Members and managers to receive real insight into how process and systems are operating. And we understand how people in organisations change – how they are influenced by position, role, and the way that change is introduced. We know that opportunities to really transform organisations only come once in a generation – and must not be wasted.
The book ‘The machine that changed the world’ that introduced the term ‘lean’(it’s not an abbreviation)in 1990, and in further books such as‘Lean Thinking’, James Womack and Daniel Jones describe how the underpinning principles of a Toyota-like approach can be applied to any form of work.The principles behind the request for a car and then delivering this are the same as a customer requesting housing benefit support, and if valid, providing this. Lean looks at the whole process and system that the work is done in.
Indeed often there isn’t a single person who sees the whole of the process – from customer request to delivery. This becomes even more complex when the administrative and information processes that surround the work are taken in to account as these are often five or six times more complex than the process of the request itself. The result is a process that is often riddled with errors, duplication and delay. It is this which is highly frustrating and dispiriting for frontline employees and leaves many feeling that they are working as hard as they can and yet still failing to deliver a good quality service. Much of the work that goes on within the local authorities does not directly add value from the customer’s point of view. Our processes have rarely been consciously designed – they’ve evolved in a hotch potch way, often over many years. By learning to see our processes in all of their full horror with the problems clearly set out we can then take the first step along the road towards improving them.
We believe that there are three key benefits to a lean systems thinking approach:
1.It brings information about how the organisation is actually working to visibility for boundary (frontline) staff, managers and Members alike
2.It shifts thinking to top-down command and control but ‘outside in’ from the customer purpose
3.It helps all parties to truly understand the issues which are preventing high quality performance
We believe it is critical not to codify and blindly follow method, but have developed some of our own principles and ‘rules of thumb’ – see Lean from Within
For a pragmatic way to begin to introduce lean and systems thinking, see Lean systems thinking rapid improvement activities
If you’d like to know more or receive a copy of our recommended lean reading list, please contact
079 3131 7230