Frontiers of Lean

It is eighteen years since the first western firm, Danaher in the USA, began its lean journey guided by disciples of Taiichi Ohno, the architect of lean at Toyota. Ten yeas ago Jim and I brought this crowd of early pioneers together at the first Lean Summit in Boston. It was an amazing event bursting with energy and infectious enthusiasm that well and truly launched the lean movement.

We have undoubtedly learned a great deal since then. Lean has become a household word in manufacturing and as we saw at the Lean Service Summit last June, people are now realising the huge potential for lean in administration, maintenance, services, healthcare and the public sector.

However we still have a lot to learn about implementing lean. Why, when the benefits of lean are so demonstrably significant, are more firms not making faster progress with lean? What have we learnt over the last eighteen years about what works and what does not?

I think the time has come for the lean movement to begin a big debate on what we still have to do to roll lean out across the world much faster. This is one of the two frontier issues we will begin to debate at the Frontiers of Lean Summit in Stratford-upon-Avon on 31 October to 2 November this year. The full Summit programme is now posted on our web site

The second frontier we will discuss are the new opportunities for fundamentally redesigning the way companies organise and deliver value to solve consumer problems. Jim and I have been thinking about this next step for lean for several years and the Summit will be the global launch of our new book Lean Solutions: How Companies and Consumers Can Create Value and Wealth Together. More on this theme in my next e-letter.

I meet passionate and experienced advocates every day who have devoted their lives to implementing lean, but who are also deeply frustrated as many of their efforts disappear into the sand. And consultants who have made a good living out of lean, who see much of their experience wasted as managers leaving their training sessions revert to old behaviour when they get back to their departments.

On the other hand I am encouraged by increasing numbers of top managers asking how to roll lean out across their operations. It is initially a bit of a shock for them to realise that you can not just hire someone to do it for you – it involves a lot more hard work and leadership on their part to make it happen. It means drawing on the right kind of outside help to get started and to develop new capabilities in the organisation, and it involves challenging many sacred cows inside the organisation as well as building quite different relationships with suppliers and distributors. I often say that lean is like an infection – with no antidote! Once bitten it is impossible to shake off. You see opportunities everywhere – even in the home – though health warnings apply here!

For example, take a simple everyday product that takes in total less than an hour to make through simple series of process steps. Why should it take any more than one day to go through the plant – rather than 130 days? And why should it then spend several weeks being repacked, stored and shipped to the retailer? Why not within a couple of days? Just like fresh produce. The usual answer is because it is more efficient and cheaper! And customer demand varies so much! Really? What planet do they live on? Where is the data to support this?

Seeing the possibilities opened up by lean is one thing – making it happen is another. We spent our childhood and early professional lives configuring and wiring our brains as our thinking was reinforced by our experiences. It is not surprising that it is hard to unlearn routines and behaviours – it takes time to reconfigure those pathways in our brains. And it is much harder if this new logic is not reinforced by people around us. But once a trigger point has been reached and the light goes on it can liberate new energies that can achieve what was thought to be impossible.

Just listen carefully to all the reasons put forward for why you can’t flow at least your high volume products through the plant and out to customers in a day. They reveal the many problems that are blocking progress to lean, that have to be addressed. The drag of existing assets is a problem, so are investments in big systems that would no longer be needed if we produced to demand and not to forecasts. So are conflicting metrics and chimney costing systems in each department. It is the responsibility of top management to solve these problems, not just operations.

While management may be great at strategic thinking and financial thinking about allocating and controlling the use of resources across departments, there is a complete lack of process thinking. No one is responsible for understanding the needs of the end-to-end process to design and make each product family – the product has no voice! So the order and the product have to meander their way through departments as best they can – slowly.

All of you have your own experiences in implementing lean and there is of course no one best way to do it. However there are many lessons we can share and address together rather than in isolation. In preparation for our debate in Stratford, I would welcome any short summaries (up to say 1500 words) of what you have learnt and the questions you still have. We will post some of these on our web site (anonymously if you wish) and we will summarise the common points and circulate them to participants ahead of the Summit.

We have invited some of the leading lean practitioners in the world to lead this debate and to respond to these points and we will follow this by facilitated round-table discussions for each type industry. These will provide the very best opportunity for your senior managers to prepare your organisation for its lean journey.

Please take a look at the Summit programme on the web site and think about who should attend from your organisation, from your suppliers, clients and customers. We would welcome any help you can give us and are happy to send personal invitations to any people you think should know about this. We hope this will be a very rich and thought provoking conference and a landmark even for the lean movement. I look forward to seeing many of you there.