Is remote working and lean compatible?
Lean thinkers talk a lot about “going to the gemba.” “Gemba” (also spelt “genba”) is the Japanese term for “actual place.” It is often used as a term for the workplace, where value-creating work actually occurs. The term highlights that real improvement only takes place based on direct observation of current conditions where the work is done. As the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, organisations needed to find ways to operate safely. One of the most popular countermeasures has been to implement remote working. Remote working already exists across a diverse range of industrial sectors. For example, many app developers consist of teams spread across the globe. Other employers offer a blended approach where team members work remotely (often from home) for a few days per week or month. Social distancing and limiting the risk of direct contact with colleagues has enabled organisations to question their working practices. So, what does this mean? Is remote working compatible with lean? What can remote workers learn from a lean approach?
Lean Remote Working – What problem(s) are we trying to solve?
The pandemic has given us all a unique opportunity. That is, to assess the “ultimate goal” of our work. We might not have done that on day one of lockdown. But reconfirming why our work exists enables all of us to understand more deeply its purpose. It is too simplistic to say that only value creating work occurs at the gemba. We should check alignment of work responsibilities with organizational and customer purpose. Trying to work remotely without such checks on purpose can lead to problems. It’s all too easy to jump onto a new app, a new product idea or another Zoom or Teams call. If purpose is not clear the opportunity for remote working waste is high.
During our remote working and lean discussions, I’ve reflected on the problem-solving work we have been doing and how this relates to purpose and the ultimate goal of our work. When a team is working remotely it is more difficult to see together, in order to act together. We can however ask some basic questions. These apply whether working remotely or not.
- What is our ultimate goal?
- Who does it?
- How is it best realized?
- For whom?
Adding the questions “When?” and “How much?” turns this ultimate goal into a more concrete ideal situation. That is, a “standard” we want our work to achieve.
As the famous Toyota Manager, Taiichi Ohno is quoted as saying, “Without standards, there can be no kaizen.” So, the six questions above are useful for all remote working teams to be able to apply lean thinking. Even better if you can then visualize the gap between where you are now and where you need to be. In other words, the standard you have defined in order to achieve the ultimate goal of your work.
Top 3 Tips for Remote Working and Lean
1. Shorten the Cadence with your teams.
Ironically many of us face travel restrictions in our connected world. Senior managers responsible for multiple sites, continuous improvement leaders travelling between sites or subject matter experts supporting people, developing their capability all know that cadence of contact is key. Daily stand-ups or huddles improve the flow of information and shorten the cadence of PDCA for onsite teams. But the cadence for those supporting multiple sites is often longer than that for a front-line team.
As lean thinkers, we know that batching in production isn’t just bad, it’s evil! Batching in our management systems, routines and capability building is also an issue. Take lean learning as an example. Traditionally, folk learn lean through workshops and coaching. Such activity is supported onsite maybe one to two weeks at time. This causes “learning in batches.” A hosepipe of lean over an intensive time period. At the end of the week the folk in the organisation breathe a sigh of relief and get back to their day jobs. Often, they only get around to their next steps when the next visit looms.
Online support makes it possible to reduce the batch size. Folk can learn in short bursts. Teaching can take place as single point lessons with homework to practice and apply the lessons learned. Coaches can keep in touch little and often. Pull based learning can replace the traditional push-based approach.
2. “Go See” using Technology.
There exists potential to incorporate technology into the increased cadence of learning. Exercises such as creating and presenting back videos of stand-up meetings, work processes and overall material and information flows helps teams in more ways than are first apparent. Video creation increases team member observation skills. The fact they have to present back builds upon the adage that we have to understand what we teach others. Most of us have smart phones with the capability to capture what we see. We are also equipped with apps that make sharing easy.
Not all work can be done remotely. Examples such as assembling an office chair, casting an engine block or serving customers their coffee after a meal out (remember when we used to be able to do that?) can probably only be done in a workplace. But lots of administrative and technical work can be done remotely. As long as there is an output, there must be some kind of process and so there’s an opportunity to apply lean thinking.
3. Develop your Management Routine.
Developing habits and routines for learning and application brings huge benefits. Whilst the personal computer has enabled us to speed up many activities and shorten the lead time for response times working on one is fraught with distraction. If you have notifications turned on, it won’t be long before you get interrupted. Whilst a certain level of interruption is necessary, many are a nuisance. By definition they are unpredictable. They cause a mental changeover and interrupt our chain of thought. This lengthens the lead time of the work we do. Personal productivity specialists advise us to turn off notifications at set times so we can get work done.
What lean thinkers advocate is the development of routines to get work done. Eliminating interruptions makes it possible to turn seemingly unpredictable work into predictable work. The Leader’s role is to support team members by teaching and coaching them to solve the problems. This is possible virtually when we have management routines in place to go, see and support.
Is remote working compatible with lean? Of course. But remote working may not replace face to face interaction entirely. All remote workers can learn from a lean approach. A good lean management system is applicable whether work is face to face or online. It’s important to think of the principles behind the creation of the management system. In the move to remote working how will you develop a kaizen mindset? How will you foster teamwork? How can you strengthen Plan-Do-Check-Act cycles? All of our work evolves. We look forward to hearing about the insights from across the lean community on this challenge.
By the way, we have been producing a range of online lean learning materials in our Lean Learning Journey platform.