Lean Thinking isn’t just about Time, but it is “Time for Lean Thinking”

One of the most frequently used expressions during the pandemic that I’ve heard is “I have more time.” At the start of the lock down people commented on how things slowed down. For some, time was saved avoiding the daily commute. For others they were just less busy and could focus on the vital few issues or clear a backlog of tasks. For us, the increased use of remote working tools has been a time saver – we are remote coaching with our partners saving hours of travel time and the time spent working away, staying in hotels. Freeing up time by working in different ways has been one of the few positives of the situation we find ourselves in.

Lean Thinking & saving time

In Lean Solutions, Chapter 4 is devoted to a discussion about time. Titled “Don’t Waste My Time” Jim Womack and Dan Jones observed that even though organisations aren’t explicit, many think that the customer’s time is free. This “underlying thinking” has been used in many a redesign. Customers scan their own goods in some of our supermarkets and we fill in all the information required to make on-line bookings. If the customer’s time is free, it’s OK for us to queue. Queues can be either visible or invisible to us. We used to wait in them at airports, or indeed at any service desk. Now we queue in a socially distanced manner to shop in the high street. We’ve always had to wait in the telephone queue. We are told by providers that “your call is important to us” – be it our bank, our telecoms, or insurance provider and so on. Now we must bear with the provider as they manage their way through Covid-19.

Lean Thinking has lots to tell us about reducing lead time and shortening queues. Early implementations of lean production that I followed while researching lean implementations at Cardiff University started by explaining “time is the single best indicator of competitiveness.” George Stalk and Thomas Hout highlighted the benefits in their book “Competing against time” published in 1990. They claimed that when a company improves response time 3 to 4 times the industry average, sales volume increases 3 times the industry average and the company is at least twice as profitable as the average competitor. They drew much of their research from Japan also drawing the correlation that as time is compressed, productivity increases. 

One of the most successful lean CEOs, Art Byrne, also acknowledges the importance of time. In The Lean Turnaround he argues that all successful lean conversions are about going from batch to flow. The batch company makes to forecast which usually results in a “sell one – make 10,000” approach. The lean company, in contrast tries to get as close as possible to the “sell one – make one” ideal, and always at the pull of the customer, rather than pushing a product to market. 

Both responsiveness and the lack of it have been highlighted numerous times over the last few months. Companies came together to design and produce much needed equipment such as ventilators in a very short time frame. The construction of the Nightingale hospitals showed just how effectively we could compress time when faced with a crisis. But we were also caught out numerous times. Supply chains needed to be able to respond to make and distribute huge demand increases – for example issues with PPE and hand sanitiser were well documented. Time compression is applicable to all business processes as these examples show. We wait in anticipation to hear of a safe vaccine for Covid-19. The shorter the time, the better so we might all return to what we took for granted only a few months ago. 

With all the evidence of the benefits of compressing time, it’s sometimes disappointing to hear folks bemoaning the use of JIT supply chains. The use of JIT supply has been used as a reason why we haven’t been able to get needed supplies. But many of the products that have been in shortage, don’t use just in time as lean thinkers know it, at all. The most vulnerable supply chains are the long ones, where the actors in the chain are unsure how many eschelons exist nor what the supply network looks like. Designing supply chains for flexibility, responsiveness and visibility is a key area to be addressed.  

But we need to be careful. Fast fashion has so often been lauded for its responsiveness to customer demand, but just compressing time isn’t enough. As news broke that working conditions in Leicester’s “dark factories” were a key contributor for the spread of the virus it highlighted that fast fashion may well have responded to customer demand, but at the expense of respect for people. Worthy of separate reflections, the uncovering of sub-standard factories (we could say inhumane) should not want us to stop compressing time but compress time while developing people. Paying them correctly and providing them with good work environments.

Time compression, on its own isn’t Lean Thinking. Lean Thinking is about creating a balance between the technical activity required and the social – developing people. It’s about optimising the whole, for the benefit of society not using technically great theories to optimise parts of a system. Focus on time compression, but with a human touch…