Lean has become very popular as an approach towards the design of business operations, from product development through to the provision of goods and services to the end customer. But this has not been without its problems, with many Lean initiatives failing to deliver the expected benefits, or in some cases leaving operations in a far worse state than before.
The root cause of the problem is that many organisations start in the wrong place. Much Lean practice focuses on the specific practices and tools that were developed by Toyota, as illustrated by this article: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/jun/09/tradeunions.workandcareers. But this is to fail to understand the central philosophy and design approach of Lean. James Womack and Daniel Jones termed this Lean Thinking – a universal set of lean principles, derived from the Toyota Production System (TPS). It is these (design) principles that have broad application, rather than TPS itself.
Lean is foremost a thinking thing. Simply applying a set of standard tools and techniques by rote is not Lean.
The damage caused by the rote applying of TPS can be significant, particularly in the case of Services. As systems, manufacturing and services are worlds apart.
Just how far removed such implementations can get from the general principles of Lean, and the damage that can be done, is demonstrated by this article on the implementation of Lean in the US healthcare system: http://www.labornotes.org/2013/06/dont-lean-me-hospital-workers-say.
What we are seeing here is the industrialisation of services – the creation of services that are incapable of absorbing variations in demand and where the focus is on the utilisation of resources, rather than on the efficiency of flow. The result has far more in common with the practices of mass production than Lean – its antithesis.
All this corruption in practice should not be allowed to distract from the value of Lean, when applied correctly. We need to put the thinking back into Lean.
This post accompanies the publication of a new design4services article on Lean Thinking.