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What comes after Lean?

by Michael Ballé
September 13, 2013

What comes after Lean?

by Michael Ballé
September 13, 2013 | Comments (6)

I’m often asked: now that so many companies are doing Lean, what comes after Lean?

I’ve been stumped by this question because on the one hand, I can’t quite imagine an end to “doing Lean;” Lean remains in many ways a mystery we are continuing to explore. On the other, for a long time I hadn’t come across any other strong, truly new line of thinking.

Most management ideas out there follow the Taylorist program of capturing knowledge, embedding it into a system, and then getting less qualified people to do the work within the systems constraints. Taylor’s Big Idea, to separate brains from hands, is now supported by Big Data. New opportunities to turn craft into algorithms appear every day. For example, as much as I am a fan of Amazon, here is a case where the craftman bookseller (who discusses with you what book you might like and then rummages through shelves to find the one precious copy of “the book for you”) has now been replaced by 1) an automated web-interface and 2) operators who follow the instructions of state-of-the-art IT systems in gigantic warehouses whose job it is to make sure the book gets to your door. And this is clearly going to continue. No one has yet figured out how to put together the Amazon of medicine, but someone will. You can imagine an automated web-based system that “knows” your genome and medical history, to which you’ll turn before you go and visit a flesh-and-blood doctor. The future is now.

However, one strong movement I do find incredibly valuable now that is picking up speed is Design Thinking (which Jane Bulnes-Fowles wrote about recently on the Post).

Whereas lean thinkers believe that human creativity needs to be put back into the system at the operations kaizen level, design thinkers argue that businesspeople need to be skilled at design to creatively invent the products and services of tomorrow. This is not incompatible with Lean, it’s complementary; and indeed some writers and thinkers like Matthew May straddle both worlds well. But the focus of design thinking is different. The core idea here is that the economies of scale that were the hallmark of the 20th century are now less relevant than our imagination to produce elegant, refined, targeted products. “Imagination-intensive” is about to replace “scale-intensive.”

The first assumption of design thinking is that innovation touches everything that surrounds us: objects certainly, but also full economies and political systems. The second is that great design can be taught (and learned) through a better understanding of key design heuristics, as opposed to algorithms in IT systems.

I’m a strong believer in power laws, so I doubt that we’ve seen the end of the struggle for domination of near-monopoly supply chains, although the players do and will change with technology. Still, the long tail now offers endless opportunities for new design whether in terms of products, services, or organizations. Whereas lean thinking has traditionally focused more on making legacy systems work, design thinking offers new vistas on how to look at offering, not just delivering. Both are exciting, and although fundamentally different (one kaizen-driven, the other innovation driven), both place the human being at the center of the business process. “Great people make great products” is a central assumption common to both fields. The mystery that is an individual, the choices each person makes, the creativity and engagement a person brings to their job... these things cannot be procedurized and built into any rule-based-system. They change and evolve, they grow or they die.

3D printing is happening now, as is open-source product design... The future is now, and this future brings us every step closer to rethinking “one-piece-flow” as we never have. These opportunities will be seen and explored by people, who will then need the discipline of learning to turn them into viable ventures.

Lean’s core question of “how do we develop people to design products?” is more relevant than ever.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  design thinking,  musings,  startups
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6 Comments | Post a Comment
Gururajan September 17, 2013

I am heartened to read your prediction of the future course for lean.  I am a Six Sigma enthusiast and I could see a parallel.  Intially organizations implemented Six sigma to fix broken proceseses and after a few years, turned to design for six sigma.  Your prediction of the application of Lean concepts to Design Thinking is very similar.     



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Fabien Salmon September 18, 2013
Although I was stimulated by the question, I found it disturbing too. From what I remember, the term Lean was first mentioned in the 1990's at the time of the publication of the Machine That Changed the World. My understanding was that the term Lean embodied the thinking behind which we acknowledge the presence of waste in our processes/systems and that we need to engage everyone at every level to eliminate it for the benefits of corporations and the global society as a whole. Then, we started to expose/communicate/teach on the tools that will support that objective. I look at lean thinking applied to design as a proactive approach that will limit waste during that phase but more importantly incorporate lean thinking into the design of the product/service to promote a low cost, first time quality production system to serve the needs of customers. It is my belief that we'll be talking about Lean in 50 years in the similar way we are doing today... how we'll travel the journey, what tools we'll use will adjust with time. Thanks, Fabien 

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Michael Ballé September 19, 2013

I agree. The difficulty I often encounter in discussing lean, is that I see it as a process, not an event. I've never seen a lean company, or even a lean plant (although some come close), but I know what it means to lean a plant, or a company. Lean is an operator you apply to an existing tradition of work (improve SQCD by developping people's autonomy in solving their own problems together)

However, people commonly discuss lean as a thing in itself, much as one can discuss medicine without the human body. It's easy to slip in manufacturing, and easier still in engineering. Lean without a knowledge base to apply lean to doesn't make much sense - or leads to strange things. There is definitely scope to apply lean to design, but it means understanding design first :)

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Steven Moskowitz September 26, 2013


Thank you, as always, for a thought-provoking post.  I apologize if my response rambles a bit, but hope it will spark some dialogue.  

I believe the shift to design thinking is also a factor of the increasing rate & pace of change.  We see this clearly in the electronics space as the announcement of new products, features, capabilities has shifted from every 5 years to every 3 years to every year and now, it seems, multiple times a year.  With long product lifecycles it is sufficient to create a product, and then focus on continuous improvement to optimize profit and/or customer value.  In the mode of short product lifecycles, companies now need to focus on how to bring these improvements into the design space.  I don't think it's just a matter of applying lean thinking to design processes (e.g., remove waste in the process flow), but instead will require a different way of thinking about design.  Yet, as Michael points out, this will be complementary to Lean, because it is still dependent on the core principle of Customer Value.  

As with Lean, there will be a small number of companies (hopefully across a range of industries) that embrace Design Thinking early.  We will then see these companies become leadership companies, and other companies will then have to quickly respond and adapt to this new way of thinking.  I believe the bigger challenge will be for those of us who are thought leaders to adapt our thought process, and to learn how Lean and Design Thinking work together.  As many of us have seen with Lean and Six Sigma (and TOC and other methodologies), we are often more successful when we use the various tools and methods in a complementary mode to address different aspects of improving our processes.  The sooner we are able to understand how, and more importantly WHEN, Design Thinking fits into the overall improvement approach, the better positioned we will be to positively influence future businesses.



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Alison Cormack October 04, 2013
Great to read this post and the discussions. I have been working as an Improvement Advisor within the NHS for the last 5 years. I am a Rapid Improvement Event Facilitator (Kaizen) and have often thought how long will Lean be around, what comes after Lean? I was looking for different ways to improve how we use Lean methodology.
I'm currently studying for a Master of Design For Services (MDes) which has introduced me to a whole new world of design principles, approaches and design thinking which I am hoping will compliment Lean and help NHS staff to think differently about how we deliver our services.  

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Nicolas Stampf December 20, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this comment

As appealing as Design Thinking can be, if we are to believe a bit of what TRIZ tells us, innovative (ie, truly "new") products are rare and few apart - most new products are usually clever pre-existing solutions used in a slightly different way.

If the purpose of Leaning an organization (as Lean is a verb rather than an adjective, less a noun) is to develop people so they thrive at work while increasing value, then I'm convinced we can help them make those small innovating steps (new designs for their work environment or the products) that will achieve the lean purpose.

Indeed, by helping them focus on what works for them sometimes and doing more of it, we can achieve this.

I see Lean Startup as being just this: a clever blend of Design Thinking (for the initial somehow innovative idea) and Lean thinking to solve the problems of making it bankable.

Finally, when you speak about "the mystery that is an individual..." you're already both steps in the field of strength-based change, as the whole sentence could have been written by an Appreciative Inquiry practitioner :-). May I remind you about some recently released book on "strength-based lean six sigma"? Like Mr Jourdain, it looks to me you're already somehow doing it ;-) 

And most probably more than anyone else (but that would require another post).

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