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“Learning from Manufacturing” Versus Learning To Think Differently

by James (Beau) Keyte
December 3, 2014

“Learning from Manufacturing” Versus Learning To Think Differently

by James (Beau) Keyte
December 3, 2014 | Comments (2)

As we seek to spread lean (or learn lean thinking ourselves), we all might benefit from some reflection and adjustment. 

While it began on the manufacturing floor in the U.S., it migrated to the offices supporting the floor, then to service companies, and somewhere in the middle it picked up product development and other significant non-manufacturing processes. At this stage it has infiltrated most industries and processes.

As I reflect on HOW this all happened, I’m aware of how far we have yet to go and amazed at the number of instances where I see well-intentioned training that uses the learning and tools of lean manufacturing as a base and assumes that the student can “make the adjustment” to whatever situation he/she sees in a world without widgets.

I work within a university curriculum for lean healthcare that insists that takt time be on every value stream map. In fact, most of the lean tools are taught in this curriculum with the assumption that if it was good (and appropriate) for manufacturing it must be good (and appropriate) for everyone. There’s nothing lean about that view. Isn’t every problem situational? And I’m still seeing value stream maps in service companies with “uptime” and “changeover time” embedded, just like we learned in Learning to See. But how important are these manufacturing terms and metrics in non-manufacturing environments?

I sense some confusion here, how about you?

Lean thinking may benefit from a new assumption that an organization’s learning path (ANY organization’s learning path) does not have to be defined in ways that helped manufacturers. After all, lean manufacturing is really a subset of lean thinking, albeit the one with the most resources applied to it. This doesn’t mean that tools are left in the ditch. It does mean we need to be thoughtful about the real situation and need before we consider what tool might be useful to support our thinking and understanding of the opportunity at hand. 

Here are some opportunities I’ve seen over the last several months in “office and service settings,” a huge category in which a wide variety of important work is being done:

  • Coordinating product designs with staffs in different countries
  • Development of a new colonoscopy program for the underserved in a major city
  • Expanding the fundraising efforts at a private university
  • Reducing bad debt in a small business
  • Reducing the ICU time for open heart patients
  • Increasing the productivity of the field staff in a service organization
  • Reducing the effort in addressing accounting discrepancies
  • Changing the roles that managers play in an organization
  • Improving the productivity of due diligence efforts in a venture capital firm
  • Reducing the use of unnecessary catheters in a hospital
  • Reducing the compliance burden in a highly regulated industry
  • Coordinating specifications for major construction activities in an architecture/engineering firm
  • Gaining a critical certification for a regulated business
  • Reducing staff turnover
  • Reducing the disconnects in a new product introduction

In each of these cases it wasn’t the lean toolkit that made the big difference. It was the approach the organizations used to think differently about what the specific situation they saw, dissect it, and fully understand the problem and then act differently. The few tools they each used were appropriate to the specific problem.   

What is most useful in our lean movement is to first help people think differently and be curious about the challenges they face in their organizations. And, learn to be deliberate about how to align their efforts with something important to the organization, investigate the opportunity, understand it enough to pilot some changes, and then learn like crazy how to really make a difference as they test changes and eventually solidify them.

In my work with lean practitioners in office and service environments, I’ve migrated from the standard approach of, “What can we learn from manufacturing to help us?” to “How can we learn to think and act differently to make change?” I try to help folks answer the following questions:

  • How do we pick a place to begin that’s important to the overall success of the company?
  • How do we make it easy to engage the staff and sustain the improvements?
  • What do the different levels of the organization need to worry about as we move forward?

Whatever your work is, the big challenge now isn’t to learn lean thinking the way any other company learned it. It’s to understand how to effectively grasp the problems you and your organization are trying to solve (before jumping in and doing anything to solve them). It’s about practicing small improvements and then reflecting on those improvements. And for managers, it’s about understanding their new responsibilities in growing their staffs’ and organizations’ capability for solving problems and working across silos. It’s about helping leaders and any/all managers be accountable for sustaining improvements and then improving some more.

Interested in learning more? Join me at LEI’s upcoming workshop “Practicing Lean Fundamentals in an Office Environment.”

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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2 Comments | Post a Comment
Brenda Kenefick December 03, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Interesting post - it reminds us that to help an organization you need to start from where they are, and what they would benefit from learning at this time.Reinforcing seeing and thinking over tools
Thanks for reminding us


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Francisco J. Gonzalez December 08, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
This is a very accurate post. For years I have explained that lean is not about a rigid process nor the application of selected tools. What works in the manufacturing industry many not work in the service industry. The concept, philosophy and wisdom does apply to all industries, but not the "toolkit" nor the "copy and paste" of methods/tools in successful manufacturing industry projects. It is the "approach the organization uses to think differently... and the use of appropriate tools for the specific problem". Thank you.  

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