Lean from within
A lean and systems thinking approach, at best, can be:
- A way of getting real, useful information from the work itself;
- An emergent yet rigorous approach to whole-organisational change;
- An approach to empowering and enlisting boundary staff; and
- A model for integrating demand with organisational design and strategy, with a new approach to leadership and a culture focused on delivery.
The core insight of lean is that business processes are systems and sub-systems – drawing on the insights of Ohno and the other architects of the Toyota Production System, as well as statistical process analysis and business process re-engineering. This insight will always sub-optimise the organisation if applied through a command-and-control culture. We therefore help our clients to apply the powerful tools and approaches of lean within a frame which appreciate systems in the wider contact; interpersonal and positional systems, organisational systems, and wider environmental systems.
It is critical not to codify and blindly follow method. However, we some ‘rules of thumb’ for improvement which illustrate our philosophy:
Our approach is based on three main principles, and a set of rules of thumb. Three principles:
- Pragmatic and effective – method and mindset not rules and tools. Get savings fast, prototype and demonstrate to change belief and behaviour
- Target perfection – construct systems that build capacity and capability, and pull the amount of resource required – and no more
- Good service delivery costs less!
Seven rules of thumb:
- Work from the facts – not ideas or theories
- Engage and empower – the ‘boundary’ staff to deliver effective processes and continually improve, customers to feed back and improve the organisation
- Change management approaches and develop a responsive organisation – ‘three levels of fix’, ‘prevention not cure’, ‘no blame’
- Start from purpose – understand the purpose and vision of the organisation, and the role of each process in delivering this
- Understand demand – customer purpose when they access core processes
- Create flow from the start – decrease unnecessary contact, increase necessary contact
- Build process and structures to meet demand – use the needs of the process to determine organisational, systems, and other infrastructure changes
Below, we explain some of the rules of thumb further. All the ‘rules’ are also covered in further detail in other sections.
Rule 2: Engage and empower
The most important element to lean systems thinking is summed up in the phrase ‘the people who do the work, know the work’. It is critical to involve the people who are actually doing the job in both identifying the problems and redesign. This is the only way to really understand and the only way to really embed change. We seek to transfer skills to some experts within the organisation, and also to front-line (‘boundary’ staff) who need to be able to apply not only new approaches but also continue to improve the way the work works.
In a classic command-and-control system the locus of control is at the ‘top’ of the organisation (management and, in local government, Members), whereas the locus of knowledge about how the work works is at the ‘bottom’ of the organisation (customer-facing staff, which we like to call ‘boundary staff’ rather than ‘frontline’). Lean systems thinking helps to bring the two together.
Taiichi Ohno perhaps put it best:
“We need to use the words ‘you made’ as in ‘follow the decisions you made.’ When we say ‘they were made’ people feel like it was forced upon them. When a decision is made, we need to ask who made the decision. Since you also have the authority to decide, if you decide, you must at least follow your decision, and then this will not be forced upon you at all.
Workplace Management, by Taiichi Ohno, originally published 1982, trans. Jon Miller, Gemba Press, 2007.
Rule 3: Change management approaches and develop a responsive organisation
The change management approach is explained further in other sections (as part of our integrated approach). Three levels of fix is a core concept to us, however. Originated from Brian Joiner (4th Generation Management, 1993), it refers to the ability to see and work on the system:
- Fix the output – promptly correct existing errors
- Fix the process – change the process that allowed the problem to occur; develop ways to prevent its recurrence
- Fix the system – change the system that allowed the faulty process (that led to the faulty product or service) to operate with these flaw
We find that this is a more effective approach than ‘five whys’ to generate a willingness to engage with problems as system issues, and a powerful way to turn mistakes into opportunities – it is at the core of our approach to change a blame culture into one of acknowledging and even celebrating learning opportunities.
Rule 6: Create flow from the start
Lean is about flow: The concept of flow is about focusing on defining purpose and then carrying out activity which delivers that purpose with the minimal fuss, extra effort, complication and delay. The graphic shows the flow in the form of water – delays and diversions cause ‘white water’ and therefore hide the cause of the original stoppage. A smooth, uninterrupted flow is both fast and clear, making it easy to identify causes of problems.