Lean is more than continuous improvement of existing process

Lean is more than continuous improvement of existing processThere are probably quite a few misconceptions regarding Lean, and this state is not made any easier by the fact that there are many ways to apply Lean nor by the fact that many ideologies have borrowed the name and some tools from Lean (such as Lean Six Sigma).

One of my pet peeves is the misconception that Lean is about improvement, but not about innovation. I see how this misconception is easy to arrive at, as the most common tools people borrow from Lean focus on waste elimination or value stream mapping and are often associated with iterative improvement of the process in small steps.

However, Lean itself has innovation at its very core, and in this post I aim to elaborate on that a little bit more with the help of an analogy.

Is it about the car?

So, let’s say that your system, process, call it what you will, is a car. A car is something tangible, something you can touch and feel. Let’s say that at first you have basic seats, a bit uncomfortable ones, and an old CD player. Thanks to continuous improvement, you replace the seats with sports seats and get a full surround sound system with MP3 playback.

At this point, it is easy to say: “Look! This is what Lean is! We got these nice improvements thanks to Lean. This is what it does!”

But that’s not what Lean is. That’s just the result of applying some of the basic Lean tools, and you can do that without doing Lean. It is part of what Lean is, but not the whole picture. I like to call this part of Lean perfection of the process or perfection of the system.

Is it about the destination?

However, even if you have a really nice process, is it good for anything? If you have a car but nowhere to go, what’s the point?

Another aspect of Lean is what I like to call perfection of the product. You use your car to take you to the right destination (right product for the right customer). This is a vital part of Lean, but it is an aspect much less discussed. This is hardcore innovation right here.

This aspect of Lean has received more attention in the West in recent years thanks to the Lean Startup movement. Lean Startup is basically an application of Lean principles in product development in an extremely uncertain environment, like much of the technology industry is nowadays. Note that innovation in Lean Startup takes place iteratively – coming up with a superb idea out of the blue is a rare type of innovation; working and tuning and pivoting is a much more common way to innovate, including innovations that later on seem radical.

OK, a good system and the right product. Good. So is that what Lean is? Not exactly. You can grab tools from Lean, and you can have a lot of success with those tools to achieve these two goals (maybe even more success than a Lean company), but that does not yet mean you’re doing Lean.

It’s about the people and the journey!

Good car, check. Right destination, check. Most companies stop here. Lean companies do not. Lean companies ask next whether the driver had a good meal and enough sleep last night, and who is he going with.

I like to call this third and final aspect of Lean perfection of the individual. Lean has deep Confucian roots in its strive for perfection. This means that one of the basic responsibilities of a company is to let its employees improve themselves.

Many of Lean’s adoption problems also stem from this source, as one of the basic premises behind this part is the assumption that people want to improve themselves, both privately and professionally. If a person only goes to work for the paycheck, as many of the 20th century management models have encouraged people to do, Lean is left utterly confused and even lacking tools to motivate people to seek self-improvement. (I may return to the motivation part on another occasion, it’s not as hopeless as it seems.)

Thus, Lean is not just about the car, nor is it just about the destination, nor is it just about the people, either. It is the whole journey.

So is doing Lean always better than not doing Lean?

No, it’s not. In fact, you can in many cases borrow some of the tools from the Lean toolkit and have some specialists apply them quite rapidly, and achieve faster improvements than you can by involving people at large. (You can also choose to call these specialists Black Belts and Green Belts, up to you, just an idea.)

Lean is a long-term strategy. The idea is that by making everyone an expert in what he does, instead of a mindless automaton, the company can speed up the rate of improvements and overtake all competition in the long run, and pave the way to more satisfying and richer lives for all involved. There are many ways to fail on this journey, and a lot of ways to stray from this path, so often it is simply easier for top management to call in the experts and not worry about major structural changes that are in no way guaranteed to succeed.

Yet, for leaders who want to ennoble the lives of men, Lean provides a path that can result in success both for the company and for all the people there.


Photo: The Product Architect by Steve Jurvetson @ Flickr (CC)

Author: Ville Kilkku

I run my own consultancy business, so if you find the ideas on this blog intriguing, contact me at consulting@kilkku.com or call me at +358 50 588 5043 and we can discuss how I can help you solve your business problems. I am currently based in Finland, but work globally.