Trouble with Lean?

23 May 2008

The popular business-change method known as “Lean” has run into some bad press recently. Originally developed by Toyota to improve their manufacturing processes, it has a good track record in reducing waste activities and decreasing manufacturing time. However, recently the technique has come in for criticism when applied to service sector organisations.

Although Lean was developed as a response to problems in the manufacturing industry, its success has led to business-change practitioners to try to apply it to service industries. The results have been mixed, to say the least. In some circles, it has reached the point where the method is viewed with utmost suspicion by employees; its use is viewed as implementing management’s ulterior motives and as a synonym for cost-cutting and redundancies.

Where things seem to have gone wrong is that Lean is viewed as a rigid rulebook and a fixed set of tools to solve internal issues - excessive costs seeming to be the most popular. However, implemented correctly, Lean can be used to not only to cost costs but to increase capacity for future business and to increase the potential for handling more complex business activities.

It is these complex activities, such as problem-solving and interacting with the public, that differentiate between manufacturing and service sectors and has led to Lean implementation failures. Hence rather than the problem being with the Lean method, the problem is in its attempted implementation – blindly using a tool that works well for manufacturing environment without considering the implications in a service environment.

To me, agility is all about considering each project as unique and using the correct tools from appropriate methods in order to deliver end-customer value quickly – which means:

  • that the primary viewpoint should be that of the end-customer;

  • not blindly using a proscriptive method and hoping for the best; and

  • employee involvement (not just consultation) is essential.

For further reading, John Seddon’s recent book, “Systems Thinking in the Public Sector” is highly recommended.

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