Choosing the right tool for the job: Lean as a tool not an ideology

In the Strategic Design field there are a vast range of tools and practices to use in designing and crafting the organizational systems we work with to both enhance current value-creation and to create new types of value. We need always be aware though that these techniques, approaches, and processes are just tools for us to use. The focus in applying these tools should not be on the fidelity of their use but rather on the practical success of their application.

A great example of this is the suite of related tools and methodologies operating under the rubric of Lean. In our own work we’ve seen how working with clients in different sectors has impacted on which aspects of the suite of Lean techniques we needed to prioritize over others given the nature of our client’s specific operating environments. In particular, the shift to the increasing use of Lean techniques, and associated practices, in non-manufacturing sectors is leading to a renewed focus on how these techniques can be applied successfully in other types of sector settings.

As a reminder, as a business improvement technique, Lean (and related concepts such as Six Sigma) are based on:

systematically identifying and eliminating waste in production and service processes while simultaneously producing excellent products and services and being highly responsive to customers’/users’ needs and desires.

Emerging out of the success of Toyota’s production system the concept of Lean production has had a hugely influential impact on process improvement practices and techniques. Questions and opportunities arise though, when we implement Lean techniques in sectors removed from their original manufacturing background.

A great example of such a process is the aspect of Lean which argues for the transfer of the maximum number of tasks and responsibilities to those employees actually creating value on the ‘frontline’. The rationale for this shift is that employees on the ‘frontline’ have access to key knowledge about production processes that are not readily available to management.

The problem, however, is that while Lean techniques advocate this process of devolution they generally do so in conjunction with a separation of actual tasks between individual team members. That is, the devolution of decision-making authority to ‘frontline’ employees is accompanied by a reduction in task variety and breadth by individual employees. This reduction makes sense in terms of simple efficiency measures – reduced task variety allows people to become more efficient at the reduced set of tasks they perform – but can actually be counter-productive in organizations working in the service sector.

A reduction in the task-set of ‘frontline’ service sector employees can actually inhibit the ability of user-facing staff to be able to be proactive in real-time to the needs of users. This is because the situation of decreased individual breadth of task-knowledge may mean that positive user responsiveness may require the interaction of large numbers of employees to complete a single service transaction. Whereas previously a single employee would have possessed the breadth of task knowledge to competently complete the service delivery process. In this respect a simplification of systems through a reduction of tasks set per individual can actually negatively affect the efficiency of the organization.  

This is particularly the case in spaces like the public sector where organizational ‘best practice’ is increasingly dependent on an increased focus on responsiveness to end-users. Lean deployments may thus be at odds with these overall organizational goals. For, while Lean techniques can help bring about process improvements through structural and procedural standardization this can actually run counter to modern public sector goals of increased organizational effectiveness via processes of improved responsiveness and customization of service outcomes.

What we need to be aware of then is the way in which specific tools and techniques can be usefully applied to design more effective organizations. But, and here is the major caveat, we need to know the limitations of the tools we are using. In the example we’ve discussed here, Lean techniques are wonderful tools for improving aspects of the efficiency of an organization but their deployment without modification across different sectors can actually lead to decreased organizational effectiveness. We need to remember that we need to match the tool used to the task at hand. In doing this we need to remember that the utility of these tools lies not in the fidelity of their use but rather on the practical success of their application.

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