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Playing the Lean Long Game

March 27, 2020
As the market changes quickly, now is the time for some serious scientific thinking.

Many of us might be wringing our hands over the impact of this pandemic on our expansive lean (or, whatever you chose to call it) transformation.  Perhaps you’re approaching it with the wrong goal in mind. 

I’ve believed for quite a while now that the real end game, regardless of all the wonderful performance improvements promised by hungry consultants and/or insisted on by well-meaning boards, was the creation of an adaptable organization capable of succeeding in rapidly changing market conditions.  What I didn’t expect was that every industry would see rapidly changing market conditions at the same time!

Let’s go back to the basic principle: Plan-Do-Check-Act. The basis of PDCA is acting and thinking in a deliberate method to make changes that are proven to be sound and successful.  The implication is that you never get it right the first time, so you iterate several times (maybe as part of a pilot) to understand what really works and what doesn’t.  In this way, the thinking is lifted off the page and introduced to reality through field testing. And whatever we have on paper becomes the baseline for learning what can really work in the field. 

For those of us who have lived that method, we know that what is on paper is rarely what ends up as the solution. Reality bends it in a deliberate manner to a different place.

Lean theory is just that: your organization needs to find its own reality within the context of your culture and your market conditions. What is common, however, between organizations is the need to create an entire organization that understands the need for creating good operational goals through its leaders, and then having the folks working in “reality” get good data on current conditions, suggest a better way of doing things based on this data, and then experimenting to a place that meets the need of the organization. 

Bottom line: if you have an organization where everyone knows the basics of running a good experiment, and where the leaders understand where to point the organization, you can adapt quickly.  If you don’t have that type of organization, you have every right to be anxious about the future. You have a choice: revert in this time of crisis to the old-school management theories that didn’t work well in  good economic times, or begin a crash course in serious scientific thinking. 

To begin this path start with some clear goals, hand them off to the folks working in “reality,” and then help them understand and practice PDCA.  Don’t even think about laying people off: you need all the capacity you have in these resources you so thoughtfully depended on and trained over the years to meet this epic challenge.

You may have seen great results in your efforts thus far, but you may be playing the short game.  Now more than ever it’s time to play the long game with a clear long term goal to ensure continued success.   We can “flatten the curve” of the economic impact of COVID-19 if we all dive in now.  I’m really excited at the possibility of seeing adaptable organizations filled with folks who are always running experiments: I’m geeky that way.  Please think about this, and good luck to all!

Beau Keyte has three decades of continuous improvement experience, which have enabled him be a good listener, teacher, coach and leader as he helps organizations succeed and grow. In addition to his consulting practice, he is on the adjunct faculty at the Lean Enterprise Institute, the Shingo Institute and the University of Dayton.

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