Joe J. Ursone, PMP, CSM, MCP, SPC
Manager, BlumShapiro Consulting

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” 

“Let’s leave well enough alone.”

“We’re too busy to go tinkering around to do anything differently.” 

“We like the way things are.”

“The last time we tried to change things it was an utter disaster.”

“But we’ve always done it this way.” 

Do any of these sound familiar? Chances are they do. These are the kinds of sentiments that keep us from really examining the way we do things with an eye to improving. This is where lean thinking comes in.

Lean thinking helps us to overcome some of these obstacles by starting with the customer’s perspective and looking at our processes from the time citizens approach us to the time they get what they need. 

Lean thinking grew out of the continuous process improvement teachings of W. Edwards Deming, who was influential especially with the Toyota manufacturing company in Japan. Deming proposed taking small improvement steps frequently instead of giant leaps to help free employees from the fear of failure. Taiichi Ohno, the former leader at Toyota, said, “The Toyota style is not to create results by working hard. It is a system that says there is no limit to people’s creativity.  People don’t go to Toyota to ‘work’ they go there to ‘think.’” 

So let’s think about what we do and how we do it.  Let’s look at our processes and the paths that information follows between the time our ‘customers’ ask us for something and the time they get it. How much waste currently exists in our processes?  At Toyota, they defined waste as anything that does not add value to the end-product and then identified several sources of waste.  Their focus was in manufacturing, but non-value added activities can be found in any endeavor. 

Lean thinking involves much more than looking for and eliminating waste in our processes—but that’s a good place to start. 

The next step is to look beyond rooting out waste in processes and delve into the foundational principles of lean thinking. It is built on a foundation of support from leadership with a goal of providing customer value, both internal and external, and the pillars supported by leadership are Respect for People, Flow, Innovation and Relentless Improvement.

Leaders are required to:

  • Lead the change, walk the walk
  • Know the way; emphasize continual learning
  • Develop & empower their people
  • Inspire and align with mission; minimize constraints
  • Decentralize decision-making
  • Share responsibility within the team

​Respect for People requires us to:

  • Harness the intellect of employees
  • Empower them to analyze and solve problems
  • Ask “How might we do this better?” or
  • “What might we do instead of this?”

Flow requires us to:

  • Optimize for continuous and sustainable throughput of value (Optimize for the whole end-to-end process)
  • Use smaller batches & shorter cycles
  • Avoid start-stop-start (task switching) delays
  • Build in quality; (flow requires consistent high quality)
  • Inform decision-making via timely feedback
  • Eliminate or reduce waste

Innovation requires us to adhere to the following principles:

  • Identify the values that customers demand
  • Map the steps required to deliver value to the customers
  • Deliver value to customers on demand (PULL)
  • Deliver value to customers without waste (FLOW)
  • Seek perfection (standardize & solve to improve)

Relentless Improvement requires us to:

  • Maintain a constant sense of urgency
  • Identify and remove barriers to change
  • Maintain focus on the whole value stream
  • Apply lean tools to identify and address root causes
  • Reflect at key milestones to identify and address shortcomings

A good place to start is by evaluating a culture’s readiness and wiliness to change. Then staff should be trained on Lean Principles & Lean Thinking and encouraged to practice them daily. Management can lead the way here by daily practicing Lean Thinking with their direct reports. Staff should be engaged in identifying and mapping a value stream, identifying any constraint however small and developing counter measures specific to the root cause of the constraint. The key is to experiment with solving a problem and measuring the results of the change. If the change was successful, it can be adopted, and then the process is repeated for either another value stream or the next constraint or threat.

Joe Ursone, PMP, CSM, MCP, SPC is a manager with BlumShapiro Consulting. BlumShapiro is the largest regional business advisory firm based in New England, with offices in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The firm, with over 450 professionals and staff, offers a diversity of services which includes auditing, accounting, tax and business advisory services. In addition, BlumShapiro provides a variety of specialized consulting services such as succession and estate planning, business technology services, employee benefit plan audits and litigation support and valuation. Joe works with businesses, government agencies and not-for-profit enterprises on issues related to Project and Portfolio Management (PPM), business process improvement and technology consulting. 

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