In recent years, companies across a variety of industries have shown an increased interest in learning about and exploring lean strategies for organizational management. Lean is a methodology that appears on the surface a bit nebulous, entrenched in a philosophical outlook on workflow strategy rather than a practical, day-to-day approach that can be instituted across the board in a way that everyone in your organization can appreciate. The reality is that once you delve deeper, you discover how transformative lean practices can be and how practical lean tools become.
The benefits of lean extend far beyond that of project success and revenue growth. Companies that have utilized lean strategies have reported benefits ranging from a greater propensity to manage complex team processes, an increase in team morale, all the way to increased team productivity and reduced lead time. Efficiency is often measured in dollars, and there is no doubt that a successful lean campaign will reduce costs and foster a more efficient business process.
But it is often the unforeseen value that derives from these strategies that makes them even more attractive. For instance, lean practices focus on streamlining workflow in a very specific manner (that we will dive into a little later). However, a typically unexpected outcome is that customer experience is significantly enhanced through events such as a more predictable delivery of customer value. Customers greatly appreciate being able to employ your service and know, without asking, approximately how long it will take your team to deliver. This kind of benefit extends further than you can even imagine and positively affects your reputation in a way that might surpass the cost of service as an attractor of business.
With all the benefits of lean processes out on the table, let's turn our attention to what exactly lean is and its origins. Then, we will look at some lean tools you can start using today as you orient your business to the lean methodology of operating.
What is lean and where did it come from?
In its essence, lean is a business methodology that is seeing a wide distribution across virtually all disciplines of knowledge work. The principal goal of the process is to assist teams in working smarter and more efficiently with a higher grade of satisfaction and deliver increased value to the organization and its customer base.
Increased value is not always increased revenue. Lean has the advantage of being adaptable, and with that comes a change of the practical definition of value based on the application of the process. In some instances, yes, value will be measured more tangentially with revenue. In other cases, that revenue flow may be several steps removed from the initial aim of the methodology. Perhaps you're employing lean in a human resources setting and your end goal is to achieve a greater level of understanding when it comes to issues such as companywide codes of conduct or expediting the new-hire process. Sure, these outcomes may positively affect the company's bottom line, but lean strategies can be applied across knowledge work to find greater and new value throughout an organization by means of increased efficiency.
Any business manager can tell you that one of their primary responsibilities is to fully comprehend how critical it is to avoid unnecessary waste in production. Organizations constantly search for new ways to cut down on the means of production. Unfortunately, many of the tried methods do not take a holistic or scientific approach; they merely follow the trends across the industry. They also have a regrettable tendency to negatively impact team morale, a factor not always traditionally accounted for when measuring production waste in an analytical manner. Lean instead succeeds because it is worker-centric, and the strategies revolve around the skill sets and limits of your team.
Lean is about reducing waste and increasing efficiency, but what else? And where does it come from? If the frequent references to phrases such as "production" and "efficiency" conjure images of being placed deep in the bowels of an industrial manufacturer plant, that would hardly be surprising. Lean methods found their structured beginnings from inspiration in just that very setting. In a sense, lean philosophy is as old as humanity. It is all about maximizing efficiency during the production cycle, no matter what is being produced. Thinking back to the dawn of the agricultural era, it is certainly easy to imagine humans exercising a thought process based around an aversion to waste and aiming at perfecting their craft to maximize a crop yield. With that said, the version of lean we embrace today is credited to the inner workings of Japanese automobile manufacturer Toyota.
While evolving over several decades of production that was often heavily scrutinized by founder Kiichiro Toyoda, who directed improvement teams to constantly inspect every stage of production intensely, the themes of lean came together under Taiichi Ohno (who credits the basis of many of his concepts to Henry Ford) in the 1970s and 1980s. The critical pillar of lean strategies, the notion of a pull-based workflow, was adopted by Toyota during this time. Pull insinuates that products be based on a build-to-order flow, rather than target-driven push methods that Toyota found led to overproduction.
Thinking about this in a different way, the general concept of lean thinking is that workflow is often dictated by push targets. Organizations operate with a focus on output, setting strict expectations for what they will generate with less regard for customer experience and the input of work. Lean looks at the team as a unit, then sets up continuous experiments to measure how much workflow the unit can properly handle at each stage of production, then designs systems based on left-to-right methods with a focus on only producing the set capacity for each stage of development. It is through this chain of thought that the process shifts focus from products to customers and teams.
To accomplish lean workflow, there are several tools that can be employed. Popular concepts range from the pull system just described to strategy testing, A/B testing, minimum value product testing and an assortment of other worthwhile tools. There's no one trick to implementing lean, but using information gleaned from the Lean Business Report survey data on knowledge work, there are three tools more widely used than others when adopting a lean strategy. These tools, which will be described in greater detail, are Kanban boards, work-in-progress (WIP) limits, and continuous improvement. Developing a lean strategy based on any one (or all three) methods is a great way to introduce lean thinking into your organization. Let's turn our attention to the most commonly used lean tool: Kanban boards.
The Kanban board: Visualizing your approach to lean methods
The first lean tool is decidedly the most popular; nearly 83 percent of respondents in the Lean Business Report claimed to use the concept in some form with their team. Imagine having a representation tool that is designed to imbue a visualized approach to your workflow strategy. It can function as the centerpiece of your team, a one-stop shop to stand before and study your organization's work patterns, where everyone can measure assignments and projects to determine which phases are progressing the quickest and slowest. What you are picturing in your head is what lean strategies refer to as the Kanban board.
A Kanban board is a work and workflow simulation tool designed for the visually minded team. It is a visualization enabler that allows you to optimize your workflow. The Kanban board can be physical, typically using sticky notes on a whiteboard to communicate the status and ongoing progress of projects, assignments, and issues with your team (in a way, it's like a ticketing system at a restaurant). Online Kanban boards also exist and are usually a much cleaner approach to the Kanban board, bringing sleek graphics and the ability to take your Kanban board with you anywhere you go via mobile device. Much of your decision will be based on whether your team is 100 percent colocated, and what other electronic communication implements your team already uses.
The Kanban board emerged as a product of the Toyota manufacturing team that we mentioned previously. Line workers would flash colored cards known as kanbans to notify other personnel that demand existed in their stage of the manufacturing process for more parts and assembly work. The visual degree of the process allowed teams to communicate on what work needed to be done relatively effortlessly in an otherwise loud, fast-paced environment. It further created a standardization of cues in the manufacturing process, which reduced waste and allowed a more seamless transition for new team members and substitutes.
Kanban, in the footsteps of lean, is an excellent tool due to its versatility. The application of Kanban's core principles works the same in knowledge-based industries, like advertising and software development, as it does in labor-intensive industrial manufacturing. It's all about visualizing your work, focusing on and practicing a continuous movement of workflow, and limiting your work in progress.
Kanban boards add the visible structure of a manufacturing production line to knowledge work that is traditionally opaque. Using columns to map out the steps on a Kanban board provides insight into the many aspects that make up your projects, including how work flows from left to right, start to finish. Simple processes are set out as vertical lanes on the board, and different project types are noted by certain color assignments.
As an example, a sample physical board for a marketing department might contain six columns (though it could have as few as three for To Do/Doing/Done). We will refer to these six columns as To Do/Plan/Develop/Test/Deploy/Done. We'll assign three colored Kanban cards: blue for marketing videos, yellow for written marketing content, and green for meeting and trade shows. As an alternative, card color can also represent priority and can be used much like a traffic light (green for expedite, yellow for normal, and red for least urgent). On the card itself, information exists, such as who is assigned the work, which customer is demanding the service, an expected delivery date and other relevant details.
By mapping the workflow, your team's efforts are now transparent inside your team and beyond to other departments. Visualizing your workflow is beneficial in that the human brain is itself visual. The brain can comprehend visual information over 60,000 times faster than text. The whole purpose of the Kanban board is to optimize your work environment and relieve the stress of multitasking. The board represents a shared visual language that everyone can understand, simplifying communication and giving team members and stakeholders access to information in a frictionless form of cognition.
The other goal of the board is to limit the amount of work in process so the work flowing through the system matches its capacity. Stuck work becomes easy to spot on a Kanban board; it'll stick out like a sore thumb when a card has stayed in the same place for a week or more. But the prevention of a veritable logjam in workflow isn't accomplished by the Kanban board itself. Another critical tool to lean strategy is necessary to employ in conjunction with the Kanban way of thinking to understand the actual capacity of the team.
In the work environment, humans often take on more work than they are capable of finishing and set ambitious deadlines. We aren't always the best at anticipating daily distractions that sidetrack us from completing our work on schedule, and we lead an unsustainable pace. The inevitable response to such actions is a bottleneck of project progress. Projects fall to the wayside, and over time, a larger and larger chunk of your schedule is eaten up by having to explain to stakeholders what stage an assignment is at in the workflow stream. Frustration mounts, which can have a negative impact on morale, which can affect motivation and work quality.
In other words, it's easy to let your team's workflow spiral into an unmanageable state. We like to say yes to customers and superiors because it often feels easier than saying no. The Kanban board is great for visualizing the workflow process and catching a glance at how your team is performing, but without variable control, it ultimately amounts to a glorified to-do list. To maximize your lean efficiency, introducing work-in-progress (WIP) limits can give your team a better idea of how much work they can truly take on.
A WIP limit is placing a capacity on work that can be absorbed by a team in each stage of production. When you have too much WIP, you are simply working on too many things at once and your brain is naturally going to be scattered. To introduce WIP limits to your team, look at your Kanban board. Map the process across the board and take note when items are getting stuck in the process. Consider the time already spent on the item and the cost associated with it, then ask yourself, "Why is this expensive project getting stuck?" In all likelihood, your project isn't seeing any movement because it is competing for time with one (or more) of the same obstacles that regularly get in the way for businesses.
The first is conflicting priorities. No two items can vie for the spot of top priority successfully; one must win out. When dozens of projects are happening simultaneously, drawing attention away from one another and competing for the same resources and personnel, team members must constantly context-switch and split time between tasks that ultimately results in a larger amount of partially completed projects.
Another issue that arises is unplanned work. These seemingly appear out of nowhere throughout the week in the form of requests within and outside of your department. These unforeseen work interruptions can wreak havoc on your WIP. Sometimes they spawn from true emergencies, and sometimes others perceive them as emergencies and try to sell you on the urgency.
A final issue that frequently comes up is a dependency on an expert or party outside of your team to complete a crucial part of your project. When an item becomes blocked in your Kanban board due to waiting for someone with a specific skill set to address it, chances are your team is competing with other teams and clients for that person's attention. Experts aren't always available when you need them to be, and WIP can grind to a halt.
WIP limits are designed to identify the sequences in your workflow that are bottlenecking. It's truly a trial-and-error process. Start out with a study period of two to four weeks so you can gather data on where work is halting in the workflow process and meet with team members to discuss the reasons. Then design a limit on that specific stage so that fewer items can exist there at any given time. If you find that you didn't place a high enough limit after a few weeks of testing or that now you have too much free time, adjust accordingly.
With acclimated WIP limits in place, issues of unplanned work resolve themselves; the limits exist within an objective state of your office that accounts for the occurrence of unplanned work rather than the subjective feelings of what you believe you can accomplish. Priorities no longer conflict, as the WIP limits dictate how and when work is prioritized. The entire conceptualization of the workflow process is essentially automated. The final issue, expert dependency, can be alleviated by organizationwide Kanban boards. Typically in a digital form, these boards allot extra visibility to potential obstacles. You can even place WIP limits based on specific expert approval so you're not left sitting with dozens of tasks in the lap of someone outside of your department.
With WIP limits in place, this brings us to one final tool that you can implement in succession to round out your initial lean strategy.
Constant flexibility through continuous improvement
The experimental approach of lean requires a constant state of business evolution. Equal parts team philosophy and formalized practice, continuous improvement emphasizes remaining cognizant of how your processes can always improve. It's easy to fall into the groove of things once you're comfortable and begin to passively take on tasks with little regard for what you're actually doing and how you're doing it. Continuous improvement attempts to break you of this habit and keep your team focused on enhancing your quality of work through adaptability.
The main process for continuous improvement focuses around a four-step approach. You must first identify the workflow processes that require improvement, typically done in conjunction with WIP limits. Next, you want to meet with your team and plan a course of action. With a strategy in place, it becomes time to execute and implement the strategy over a set timeframe. The final step is to review the execution and measure areas where the plan succeeded and failed.
The continuous improvement lean strategy calls for you not to stop at step four, but rather to cycle back around and start over. It's designed to consider your improvement in a circular motion, rather than with start and finish points. It sheds the notion of perfection and embraces an environment of constant growth and learning. In addition to this cyclical improvement, there are two other techniques to explore under the continuous improvement banner.
The first technique is to eliminate non-value-adding activities. This can happen as you conduct your continuous improvement cycle. Identifying areas of waste and looking for opportunities to make better use of your employees' talents and skill sets will ultimately create better value for your customers and company. With this technique comes the potential to disrupt morale by placing employees in a position where they must ask themselves if their position is an area of waste. That's why, when embracing this technique, you should remain transparent with your team and reassure them of their value. The goal is not to cut, cut, cut and cut some more. The objective is instead to assist each team member in growing into their position and maximizing their individual efficiency and output.
The other technique to consider is to define what waste means to you and your organization. This is one way to think of waste: If a customer sees something as a line item and they would not want to pay for it, it's waste. Occasionally these activities are unavoidable; tasks that might appear mundane, like emailing potential clients on the behalf of customers, are necessary and have an associated cost, but the customer may not want to pay for them. The challenge often becomes distinguishing between what can be cut and what can only be minimized.
Sometimes waste is difficult to see when projects require several hands in the pot. By the time each "expert" has left their mark on the project, it's entirely possible that the context has changed and the problem that the project was meant to address has shifted. The time spent partitioning winds up as a wasted opportunity. This is often a symptom of an organization that functions by siloing team members to work only on specific tasks in which they're believed to be especially gifted. It sounds like a great idea, but in practice, it morphs into non-utilized talent. Applying continuous improvement to the growth of your team will help team members develop into well-rounded, dynamic members of your organization who can step up to pull projects to their next stage.
As you consider which lean strategies to embrace in the beginning stages, don't worry too much about success and failure. By now you can see that lean isn't really about that; it's a methodology based on the idea of constant imperfection. This may seem stressful if you're a perfectionist, but exploring notions of continuous improvement and methods to develop your team into a more cohesive unit will do wonders in creating added value within your organization through a variety of measurable ways.
Kanban boards aren't for everybody. Accept input from your team members on the subject. WIP limits will likely fail the first time around. Continuous improvement will seem never-ending. But once you decide to go all in on these lean strategies and let them develop within your organization, adapting to your needs, you'll find that the results are well worth your time.
1. Taiichi Ohno, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiichi_Ohno
2. Lean Business Report is survey research and educational content from leaders in the Lean business community, https://go.leankit.com/lean-business-report.html
3. See "What Is A Kanban Board?", Leankit, https://www.planview.com/resources/articles/what-is-kanban-board/
4. Mortimer, J., Just-in-Time: An Executive Briefing (IFS Ltd., 1986).
5. See for further example "Kanban Board Examples," Leankit, https://leankit.com/learn/kanban/kanban-board-examples-for-development-and-operations/
6. Collis, D., "Lean Strategy," Harvard Business Review, March (2016), https://hbr.org/2016/03/lean-strategy
7. Radigan, D., "Putting the 'flow' back in workflow with WIP limits," Atlassian.com, https://www.atlassian.com/agile/kanban/wip-limits
8. DeGrandis, D., "Make Your Team’s Work Visible: How to Unmask Capacity-Killing WIP," Leankit.com, https://leankit.com/blog/2017/05/unmask-capacity-killing-wip/
9. Chawla, S. and John Renesch, Learning Organizations: Developing Cultures for Tomorrow's Workplace (Productivity Press, 1995)
10. Imai, M., Gemba Kaizen: A Commonsense Approach to a Continuous Improvement Strategy (McGraw-Hill Education, 2012)