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Lean Strategy: Fill the Pipeline
March, 2016

A recent LinkedIn post highlighted that when a song is heard over and over again, people tend to remember the lyrics. We've all experienced this, and we even observe it on a daily basis. How can all this 'learning' be happening, without any formal training behind it? Could it be that the workplace conception that formal training is required for learning is wrong?

This may start a firestorm, but there is thousands of years of evidence that formal training isn't the best way to learn, well, anything! Early humans and proto-humans learned by observation, and learned by doing. There was no such thing as classroom learning, because there was no classroom. In antiquity, and all the way up to a few centuries ago, mentoring, and especially text copying by scribes, was the primary way knowledge was transferred.

Only when tasks & knowledge sets were broken down into their fundamental elements were 'classrooms' invented to transfer simple facts to larger groups. But up to that point, listening, doing, and rote copying were the natural

Bill Kluck
The Northwest Lean Networks

W. Edwards Deming said, "It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.".

I really enjoy LinkedIn discussions, they give us a way of thinking about our day-to-day challenges in new and interesting ways. For over 25 years now, I've been fortunate enough to work with clients on a global scale, assisting in implementing lean strategy & concepts. These discussions are reminiscent of NWLEAN conversations ( which began back in 1997 (and some still going today!).

My initial foray into lean began while I was in the aerospace industry, when I attended a certification course at the University of Kentucky. I was quite impressed with the UK's treatment of the subject, the focus on customer, and the focus on organizational learning. Many of the core concepts learned remain with me today.

It may be interesting to note that some of things taught, I've learned over time, are really not lean at all, and can be quite confusing (even to those who've been in the profession!). I think mainly this is due to consultants & academics who have tried to 'put their mark' on lean, adding complexity where none is needed.

"It is not necessary to change.
Survival is not mandatory."

                                                                W. Edwards Deming

Too often, the customer (the primary focus of lean) is left out of the equation altogether. Everyone in the value chain believes they can proxy for the customer, or even worse, substitute customer perspective with another (this is how many lean initiatives become destructive 'cost-out' initiatives). There should always be a trail back to how any action benefits the customer.

Once we vary off the customer-driven path, it is easy to lose sight of the primary lean concepts of waste, flow, and pull. Taiichi Ohno conceived the 7 wastes, which is the first place consultants & academics go to 'improve' their specific lean derivations. From the most complex (CLOSEDMITT) to the more benign (DOWNTIME, N=Non-Utilized Intellect or Workers), I contend that anything you can put in an '8th waste' was really in the original 7 all along. (Even I use DOWNTIME, because it is an easy acronym to teach from. But I use N=Not Embracing Change, indicating that Resistance is a very powerful form of waste).

However we got here, the lean community is now split on several key issues: Many believe, as a consequence of needing to be hired, the main focus on cost reduction is the ultimate goal (despite any rhetoric to the contrary). Others tend to sell what I call a 'training-project' model, which requires extensive training on all things lean (and many non-lean), certification, with lean projects as the main vehicle of improvement. Still others say we must focus on culture, and others create additional constructs to push more personal objectives. I can't say any of this is intentionally wrong, but it certainly muddies what would otherwise be a fairly clear pool of ideas.

None of these 'splits' addresses the key issue companies face when experimenting with lean - What are we going to do with all the freed capacity? Fact is, most companies don't even consider this question. They know what they're going to do, they're going to get rid of it, to save money. Without having to focus on the customer, their goals have been reduced to slashing costs. And eventually, as we get to 'bare bones', even the lean teams are slashed (we say 'absorbed' into Operations).

The answer here is so simple, itís going to be hard to believe: FILL THE PIPELINE. I don't mean more lean projects in the pipeline, I mean fill the SALES pipeline. What does your company need to do to increase sales by 10%, or 20%, in the short-term? Is it lower cost? Is it better quality? Or better product availability & service? These are really the only things our 'marginal' customers care about (those on the fence about buying our products/services vs. our competitors). On the margin, what is it going to take to move those customers to us? Figure that out, and advertise those to the new customers, BEFORE you start your lean initiative!

"Who'd have thought that it would be SALES
that would save the company?"

                                                                Michael Scott
                                                                               Dunder Mifflin Paper Co.

I know that is a radical concept, because if you can't deliver your promises, you'll certainly have egg on your face. The requirements from these promises will drive wide and deep change, and facilitate the NEED for lean. Lean will show you where the waste is, so you can eliminate it, fast. Then you will be able to put the extra capacity to work for you, essentially for free! This is how lean can become a competitive weapon.

One last thought: "Lean doesn't fail companies, companies fail to get lean." Become a member of the #LeanRevolution.


no_photo.gifBill Kluck is the Founder and Director of Operations for The Northwest Lean Networks, a professional society which connects the community of lean professionals worldwide.

Bill has over 20 years of experience implementing lean in a wide variety of industries, both public and private. He has trained thousands of leaders & associates in various lean strategies and techniques, and has facilitated billions of dollars in impact. Bill's main focus is building transformational change and evolving business culture.

Bill earned his Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from the University of Washington, an MBA from Seattle University, and holds several continuous improvement certifications (including a Six Sigma Master Black Belt, and a Masterís Certification in Lean Methods). He currently works as Assistance Vice President for Genpact, LLC.

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