29 Mar 2016 21:25 IST

How to lean toward lean thinking

Far from being a lazy approach, it is sharp, disciplined and efficient

When the CEO attends a meeting, it’s not to merely ‘attend it’.

“Let’s apply lean methods to our management”, he says, to a wall of silence.

All the department heads and their deputies scurry in and out of the conference room to get details as and when required. The meeting ends an hour later than planned.

Is the company following “lean thinking” or “lean management” methods? A bit of both.

Since the deputies go out to get information only when it is required, you can say that the “lean” principle of “do just what is needed” is followed.

On the other hand, too many people attending a meeting indicates that the meeting is definitely not “lean”.

There is a manufacturing company that has been practicing Kaizen (hundreds of small improvements). For some, Kaizen embodies lean thinking. But others would say that the fact that you keep needing improvements for the same thing for years indicates you did a lousy job in the first place.

Quick learning

Lean thinking recommends quick cycles of experiments and learning. This idea is quite popular among software companies. It saves the bother of research and deep thinking to write good requirement specifications. You make quick and dirty prototypes, let your developer community and customers use the devices and report faults and then go and fix them for the next update cycle. You obviously can’t do this in automobiles or healthcare!

On another level, lean thinking aims to satisfy current demand before trying to meet imaginary demand for the next month. This is done through smoothening the work flow. If there are buffers for handling larger volumes, you squish them as, right now, the demand is not that high — you release excess capacities and use them to deliver quickly. You may have to get that buffer back when demand goes up next month. That act is also ‘lean’, if we go by the strict meaning of the word.

What lean is not

You might think the above situations look shaky as you are uncomfortable with the several assumptions on which the above ‘lean’ scenarios are based. The assumptions are:

1. If we consider the meeting with the CEO, it is impossible to determine what information will be needed in the meeting, even if the agenda is set

2. A single person from every department won’t be able to handle the department’s issues

3. If you consider Kaizen, it is not possible to design a manufacturing operation that does not need continuous improvements for years, even though the plant output remains practically the same.

4. In the case of software, it is not possible to define a product well enough to avoid several customer update cycles, even to make it reasonably acceptable

The first two situations arise if you have an undisciplined boss and a work culture that does not allow anyone to stand up and say “let us stick to the agenda, prepare well”. Really, “lean” has nothing to do with it.

When it comes to manufacturing plants, there are industries like petrochemicals and refining, which build near-perfect plants. They must. It doesn’t mean that they don’t need small improvements. They do. But improvements are done during the normal course of work. So it isn’t impossible to build complex manufacturing plants that work well from the word go.

In the development of complex products, the assumption (No. 4) may seem valid. Yet, you can’t get away from not defining a product that it is not fit for use and unsafe. If you can build complex refineries to avoid accidents, you should be able to define complex software products too. Of course, you can release a quick and dirty app (not critical to users’ safety) and run quick upgrade cycles, simply because you can get away with it. But this isn’t lean thinking. It is lazy thinking. You can’t do the same in the case of cars or new drugs. Recalls and damages are very costly in these industries.

Surely, the proponents of lean thinking don’t support avoidance of thinking or taking short-cuts when dealing with complex activities. But, for some, lean may be a licence to do just that.

It is best to rely on some basic principles, to get a better idea of what lean thinking is. ‘Lean’ means something that isn’t fat. Lean means using just enough resources. Lean doesn’t mean aiming lower. And lean certainly doesn’t mean doing just enough to satisfy customers. Here are some examples:

Satisfying customers

What customers want has to be the lower band of your specifications. Your creativity and values come into play in defining what the customers need. That is your upper band. Lean means going towards the upper band with the help of experimentation guided by disciplined thinking.

Eliminate unnecessary resources

Cover supplier to customer workflows. Make them fast by design. Analyse the causes of delays, errors, rejects, reworking, repairs and pile-ups. Prevent them. Faster overall workflows take precedence over department-level efficiencies.

Lean thinking is cutting out wasteful thinking; in that sense, it is ‘less’ thinking. But it certainly doesn’t mean one should avoid thinking. It is not intended to promote laziness.

Yes, lean isn’t lazy. Lean is sharp. Lean is disciplined.