This evening I did something which is seemingly a bit foolish, but which is nevertheless characteristic for me: instead of reading one of the 200 books I have piled up for future reading I again browsed through one of those I have already read.
I did that on a sudden impulse: what struck me was that even this magnificent book was of the silver bullet kind, proposing a fixed solution to whatever your problem is. A little more refined, though, as it does specify roughly which goal most organizations are supposed to have – to eliminate waste.
The book is “Value Stream Management for the Lean Office” by Don Tapping and Tom Shuker – and I do recommend it! If you just consider what I am going to tell you now…
It is common for books about Lean to set up a kind of scenario – what needs to be in place for Lean to work. This book is no different as it suggests a list of four “critical functions”, as they are called:
- Make a true commitment to improving the value stream.
- Understand customer demand thoroughly.
- Depict the current-state value stream accurately.
- Communicate, communicate, and communicate to all associates in the value stream.
The commitment part is of course necessary – I don’t think that any change process has ever succeeded without at least some of the participants and managers being committed to reaching the expected results. It takes hard work to get anywhere with change, and without commitment there will be a diffuse target, or even several targets in play, leading to uncoordinated efforts and frustrations. What is important here is that “commitment” as a word is without value – it must be felt and lived by everybody who is to get in contact with the change, at all levels of the organisation.
The customer demand
Understanding the customer demand is a useful exercise for all employees and structural units, as they can easily be isolated – sometimes deliberately – from the customers’ thoughts and needs. In some companies this is done to make it easier for a development department to focus on development, or to serve the customers better by making all contact with them go through a layer of skilled communicators. In any case, this isolation is a big mistake – it leads to wrong things being developed and to service incidents being handled by people who might speak well but do not know anything. I would say that, Lean or not, every organisation should go through a “know-the-customer” exercise often and preferably establish a regular and more direct contact between customers and developers.
The current-state value stream
The value stream must be depicted correctly. Yes, I agree, but… It is an American book and maybe American organizations are different from Danish ones in this respect: quite a lot of activities in the latter are not done according to any known procedures – people are inventing the way of doing things every time they are doing them, and this leads to an important problem here: you might be able to make a value stream map, but what will it show? Most likely the “correct answer”, according to the participants’ understanding, but probably not what is really going on in the company. It is therefore absolutely necessary to let this activity be a recurrent one, gathering the same people several times for drawing up this map, including new people as well, in order to simply build an awareness of the very idea of a process. A value stream could consist of several processes, but this is a key component that must be understood. Some companies are ready for this but others are not.
And all the communication to… should instead be accommodation with and between. It is common in modern project management to communicate a lot, and to understand the word “communicate” as telling, maybe through newsletters and an occasional information meeting with time in the end for questions. But communication in this respect is mostly unidirectional: you want to make them understand your plans and points of view, not to actually make the plans and discuss the points of view together with your communication partners. This will not work for a change program. People will make “resistance” (which is really just a natural reaction of being told the opposite of what they know is true) and the project will end up as a failure.
The essence of all this is that you really cannot make a sustainable change through a project. But you can probably make an initial implementation, through a project, of the Lean way of thinking. This is really what this book can help you with. And it does it well, making it easy to just step through the eight steps of activities, without any doubt ending up with a good understanding among the participants of what Lean is and what good it can do.
So I recommend the book as a starting point for those who are in a situation where they wish to introduce Lean thinking in an organization with employees who will allow for a small-scale change project on a pilot basis. However, for the next step, you must move towards implementing mechanisms for organizational learning and continuous improvement, as the project, successful or not, will otherwise be left behind by the participants as simply a done project – but a change is meant to last, not to be left behind!
And this is the real readiness to aim for in order to become a lean-seeking organization: A learning culture and continuous improvement – and respect for people shown through a willingness to allow them to influence and decide what to change.
Readiness through learning a set of tools is that silver bullet that doesn’t exist. It sounds promising, but… The tools will only help you get started. The mindset will help you move on.