“We are Lean…”

Many a time, I speak with prospective client organisations who, up front, declare that they are Lean.  But are they?

Sometimes… not always so!

When one digs deeper into some self-proclaimed Lean organisations, it is not surprising to identify a substantial gap in what the prospective client declares, and what a Lean thinker might actually be aspiring for.

At this stage I must directly warn my readers that going Lean is not always a straightforward relationship.

The title selected for the previous article in this series was specifically referring to key words such as adapt, evolve, and building your team, all denoting the need for organisations to move forward, to change, and to do things differently. 

That is, challenging the status quo.

To do this successfully, organisations need to focus on creating a well-designed plan of action. This plan needs to be backed by a well-defined methodology that will lead us on to affecting the intended changes. Changes that will seek to optimise our operations. The ultimate objective being to benefit from improved efficiency, increased effectiveness, and bringing on a result of greater productivity within our value-generating processes.

As a person who generally gets involved in supporting client organisations at undergoing such change(s), the transformation leadership team’s ultimate objective should ideally be to focused on achieving a ‘Leaner’ setup. 

Some misconceptions

When I hear out business owners declaring that their organisation is Lean, I generally delve slightly deeper to attempt to better understand what they really mean. Many a time do I actually discover, eventually, that what they really were alluding to one or more of the below misinterpretations! 

The following, perhaps, are a few of the delusions I uncover through deeper probing:

  • Having a lesser resource capacity to do the work required.  Where resources could be any, such as people, time, funds, equipment, etc.
  • Not having the right structure of management (leaders) to take care of all the coordination activities, to take key decisions, and to see to all administration that may be necessary for a smooth-running organisation
  • Not having the right level of material (which could be either physical inventory, or even the right level of data or information required) on hand.  Thus, resulting in the creation of wait states.

This is not what we should really mean when we speak about a lean setup!

In reality, a lean organisation is one that takes on a process-oriented perspective of its core value-generating activities. An organisational mindset that focuses on its people, their capability and skill development, and their well-defined role – yet maintaining the right level of enthusiasm for flexibility and cross functionality. 

A lean organisation is one that identifies its roadblocks: all matters that create disruption in the flow of the value stream. One that provides a structure that actually opens doors to relevant initiatives to do something (innovate?) to reduce, if not eliminate, such roadblocks along its core processes. 

A lean organisation is one that is more adaptable to changes, at a level of maturity that makes it ready to evolve in anticipation of its internal and/or external environment and influences.

Some first steps to consider

To get one on the right track towards a successful Lean transformation, it may be good to home in on some key points that need to be considered. 

  1. One of these is the fact that all the interested parties, the relevant stakeholders, and the impacted individuals must to be engaged. They all should understand what the initiative is all about. They should understand its scope, and the reasons for this change. They must work hand in hand with executives and staff at all levels within the organisation. Most of the time, I find myself literally drawing up a list of the interested and impacted parties, and working with the client to ensure that all identified interested parties and stakeholders are onboarded and engaged to the right degree.

    Simply put, failure to get the full onboarding of the impacted individuals onto our initiative could spell disaster in the anticipated success.

  1. Another key step that needs to be considered at the onset would be to gather the right level of information from within the organisation. We need to gain a clear understanding of the strategic direction that should set us on the way forward.

    Do we really understand what our organisation’s operational activity includes in order to deliver value? Because only once we can identify and define our key operational value-generating processes can we crack the code as to what our organisation setup should look like. And not the other way round!

  2. Another key activity that enables successful Lean transformation is through the participative approach of all core individuals. This could generally be achieved through interactive and contributing stakeholder consultation workshops. Such interactive activities usually help us identify mission-critical business directions, core processes that need to be reviewed, identify key operational and management metrics, and priorities for improvement. I strongly believe that working on engaged interaction of otherwise desolate departmental ‘silos’ is one key ingredient in the recipe for successful change management. 

    Unfortunately, we tend to see many organisational structures that operate pretty much within isolated containers (silos) which essentially serve well to build expertise and knowledge, capability and proficiency within an enclosure, but fail to allow the free flow across the organisational value stream.

    In a Lean mindset, we tend to identify and break down any silos that generally prevent flow! We need to appreciate that value must flow across the organisation (through the silos).

Vertical vs horizontal perspective of an organisation

Let us break the vertical (‘silo’) approach to management by looking through our organisation from a horizontal perspective. This shall take a view of the organisation that looks along the flow of the value stream. Think of the appointment of a role, call it the Business Process Owner, whose prime objective is to champion the flow aspect of the core processes. This role should be empowered to internally lead the movement of the process across the various departments, units or divisions (expertise silos!) normally associated with vertically-oriented organisational structures.

Once we understand our core value streams, then we can proceed with an approach for sensible process analysis: learning the hotspots and points of contention. To identify the weaknesses and detect those opportunities that are on offer, and which will make the process somewhat better.

‘Our’ company structure?

After we have diagnosed our existing processes, and identified critical weaknesses, we are then in position to outline the relevant changes necessary.

Next comes the redesign of our future state.  In other words, our transformed organisation, based on Lean – and perhaps digital – best practices.

A first in instigating a Lean change blueprint is to identify the level of ‘horizontalness’ that we can bring into our business activities. Breaking through the vertical silos and focusing on cross-departmental flow of material, data, and resources.

Ing. Joseph Micallef is a freelance Consulting Advisor, bringing with him over 30 years’ worth of experience across various sectors. Working in areas related with quality, lean, business process transformation and project execution and programme management he can be contacted directly on m +356 9982 2244 or e: [email protected]


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