Friday, 12 May 2017

Teaching the history of lean

As part of our process improvement training we give our participants a brief history of Lean thinking. We’ve done this since the early days of the unit as it seemed to us to be essential to describe, almost before what ‘it’ is, where ‘it’ has come from. So we talk about Scientific Management and Henry Ford, as well as lean gurus like Deming and Taiichi Ohno. We tell attendees about the Toyota Production System and Jones and Womack. And we accompany our words with pictures of the Highland Park factory.
But what’s the point of this historical background? And does Lean in public service, where our expertise lies, really have anything to do with manufacturing and the history of manufacturing?

I’d like to explore the link in this blog post, because it bothers me that we may be wasting time and causing confusion rather than improving understanding. We have some evidence for this concern, because feedback from our training often highlights the benefit of examples from the university, and criticises examples from manufacturing - or even other service sectors. And yet - as George Santayana reminds us - ‘Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it’.
So there are two questions to answer:
  1. Do the basic principles of LEAN apply to public service environments?
  2. And does knowing where LEAN has come from tell us anything useful about how to apply it in public service environments anyway?
Let’s look at the first question. Taiichi Ohno, one of Lean’s principal proponents, said All we are doing is looking at the time line, from the moment the customer gives us an order to the point when we collect the cash. And we are reducing the time line by reducing the non-value adding wastes.” All Lean thinking in manufacturing, it seems to me, flows from that understanding. Every effort is bent towards the end of removing wastes from the moment a customer orders something to the moment it is delivered and paid for. In other words, the profit motive is supreme. Now, how Toyota and others saw progress towards that goal being made possible was certainly radical and different to what had gone before - in particular the notion of paying attention to the workforce’s knowledge and expertise - but the underlying rationale was the same - be more competitive, make more money.

Clearly service environments, and in particular public service environments, have a different raison d’être. Profit, at least until recent times, is not a motivator. Instead it is the provision of service within budgetary constraints. However, the application of lean principles to reduce the time and resource required to deliver service is as relevant here as in manufacturing.  Delivering better service, using the same or less resource is the aim of many public organisations, particularly in these cash-strapped times.
So that brings us to the second question. What’s the point in knowing where Lean has come from? If Lean is useful in service environments, isn’t it enough to know the principles and the methods? And broadly speaking, my answer to this is yes, that is enough. One can be ‘lean’ without a knowledge of history. And I think the inventors of ‘lean’, the people at Toyota, would agree. For them, Lean is a way of working rather than a set of documents and other such codifications of practice. The enquiring mind, the search for continuous improvement, the focus on service users rather than internal operations and so on, can all be fostered as part of organisational culture without the history lesson.

In our training though, we’ll keep on doing a bit on the history, because it is quite interesting.

No comments:

Post a Comment