If only everyone knew about Lean Thinking

This week I’ve seen two pieces of research that have made me sit up and think about how effective lean thinkers are at communicating what lean is and its benefits. We must make what we take for granted available to a much wider audience. It’s with that aim that we are developing our Lean Learning Journey platform to help tackle this problem.

Last Monday, The Financial Times’ Andrew Hill authored an article titled “The hidden skills gaps employers must learn to bridge.” The article explained that the world faces a looming “skills gap” with the potential to impact economic output. Politicians, policy advisors, academics, business leaders and many of us who are parents were concerned about this before Covid-19 but there are new dynamics at play in the situation we now find ourselves in. 

The ongoing eye of the Covid-19 storm has created an economic shock the magnitude of which we haven’t seen before. In addition to the impact on our health and well-being, millions of individuals globally have lost their livelihoods and millions more are at risk from global recession. As many of us have increased our online presence there is an argument to be made that such a structural change will accelerate work automation. There is little doubt that labour markets are being disrupted. While it’s easy to focus on the digital skills we face in an increasingly online world, it’s important to think through what skills are ultimately needed. The lean community is talking a lot about lean and industry 4.0 and we could easily focus on this. Interestingly, the World Economic Forum report highlights that the top skills for 2025 are broader than technology skills and are as follows:

  1. Analytical thinking and innovation
  2. Active learning and learning strategies
  3. Complex problem solving
  4. Critical thinking and analysis
  5. Creativity, originality and initiative

Source: World Economic Forum – The future of jobs report 2020

Of course, many lean thinkers already know this. Skills such as analytical thinking, innovation and problem-solving sit above learning to use new technologies such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams – although I take my hat off to anyone that is able to navigate the latter efficiently and effectively. The age-old argument goes that once everyone has access to particular technologies, they cease to become a form of competitive advantage. I am reminded of the quote in Peter Senge’s book “The Fifth Disciple” from Arie de Geus who argued that “the ability to learn faster than your competitors, may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” Those new to this idea would do well to read “The Lean Strategy” to put into context what lean is and where it can lead individuals and organisations.

The other piece of research came by way of a contact on LinkedIn. It claimed to be new, but it’s actually from a paper first published in 2016 by Denise Cumberland and Meera Alagaraja. “No place like the frontline: A qualitative study of what participant CEOs learned from Undercover Boss” highlights issues many of us observe in the organisations we visit. The inductive study of 13 of the reality TV show’s participant CEOs revealed that they came away with an increased level of empathy for their workers and a better understanding about the real culture of their organisations. All bosses found that there were issues that would or could negatively impact their organisations. These included:

  1. How poorly employees were treated by managers, peers and sometimes customers
  2. Expectations to work without adequate equipment
  3. Limited or no knowledge about the resources available to assist them in their jobs
  4. The assumption that all ideas dictated from above can be executed on the frontline
  5. Lack of proper training
  6. No or little support for career development
  7. No or inadequate mechanisms designed to gather employee ideas or feedback
  8. Poor leadership and management by direct supervisors.

If only these leaders knew about lean thinking and practice. They would learn effective mechanisms for highlighting the vital few organisational problems to solve. They would learn about the importance of going to the gemba (the place where the work is done.) They would learn a process (Job Methods) to understand the work their front line needs to do by making it safe, visible, and standardised and they would learn how to teach and coach to develop their front line leaders (through Job Instruction and Problem Solving.) These processes have a simple purpose – to provide better value to customers while at the same time developing the capability of their people. Many of these methods, honed during World War Two, were developed during a time of crisis and need. Revisiting them makes sense as we face our current crisis. Everyone, at every level needs to be working on their problems to overcome issues in a crisis. It’s important to accelerate the development of such skills at any time, but now it seems more relevant than ever.

It’s with this intent that we decided on the fundamental skill of problem solving for the first material on our Lean Learning Journey platform. This is where we are putting key subject materials, in one place, to help people learn and apply Lean Thinking and Practice to their work.  The content is based around the Lean Transformation Framework and encourages lean practitioners to become effective learners for life, focusing on skill development rather than training completion or certification. Many of you have downloaded both the free (level 1) and the paid (level 2) materials. If you did this when level 1 was first released, then you need to go back and have a look again. In a few short weeks, we’ve substantially updated the level 1 course, something we would never be able to do if this was in printed form. I can’t think of many materials that are as effective at closing gaps in the top skills required by 2025 by the World Economic Forum.