Accelerate - November 2013

Keeping it Lean - Four quick questions to Richard Schonberger

Accelerate recently had the opportunity to ask international Lean expert and esteemed author Richard Schonberger about the business of Lean.

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You have been studying Lean for 30 years. What are some of the key things you have learnt?

I learn more all the time, and will mention one recent lesson – Lean’s advantage in services. I’ve long held that Lean belongs in services. My original opinion was that Lean in services was less essential and therefore less likely to gain traction than in manufacturing.

Now I believe the opposite. Here’s why: what Lean mainly delivers is an ever quicker, more flexible, higher quality and higher-value customer-centered response. In that regard, services have the motivational advantage of being close to customers – in human services, eye to eye!

In contrast, in manufacturing the final user is far down the chain of customers: out of sight, out of mind, as they say. Thus, Lean-driven process improvement in services is likely to be far more meaningful to everyone, from frontline servers to senior executives, than in manufacturing, where Lean often starts off, then fades.

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What are the biggest challenges for implementing and sustaining Lean principles in business?

My answer relates to what I’ve just said about Lean’s tendency to fade. Lean has been sold, even defined, inappropriately, as reduction or elimination of the ‘seven deadly wastes’. Waste elimination is a good way to teach and engage the troops, but a poor way to gain and retain executive-level and board-level interest and support.

Lean was once thought of, and promoted as, time-based competition. It needs that again today, to turn Lean into a strategic/competitive necessity, rather than a pedestrian programme, easily delegated to the operations people.

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Is there a time frame for success? How long does it take for businesses to see the benefits of Lean?

High success with Lean can be, and sometimes is, achieved in less than a year. That is most likely when one or a few highly Lean-experienced people are hired with the deliberate intent of achieving Lean. Some companies (e.g. larger ones) feel they can afford this, but many others do not.

More often, Lean proceeds more slowly, taking a year or two to show gratifying results (e.g. large reductions in customer response times). The Lean pathway often includes pilot projects to demonstrate and ‘prove’ the Lean practices.

Pilot projects and trial-and-error, while slowing the course of implementation, do have the advantage of gaining a deeper level of commitment from everybody involved.

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New Zealand has many entrepreneurial small to medium-sized businesses. What specific advice would you give to these business owners to improve their competitiveness?

SMEs (small and medium enterprises) have advantages. Their sight lines to real customers are short, and stifling bureaucratic tendencies that plague large companies are absent. On the other hand, SMEs tend to spend little on training. Since training in Lean is the main driver of success in the endeavour, SMEs tend to be ‘Lean laggards’.

In the US, SMEs have benefited from a government- supported network of Manufacturing Extension Partnerships, all offering subsidised training plus advisory services in Lean and total-quality management. Singapore (which may be the nation most advanced and successful in Lean), quality and related improvement methodologies became that way through many years of large-scale government-sponsored training.

Updated: 7 September 2015