Vaccines, mosquito nets and lean – is there a common thread?

The vaccine against measles does not discriminate. It works reliably irrespective of your race, religion, geographic location and economic status. Wikipedia tells me that prior to the development of the vaccine in the 1960s and 70s, infection with measles was ‘as inevitable as death and taxes.’ Furthermore, it reports, ‘In the late 1950s and early 1960s, nearly twice as many children died from measles as from polio.’ Measles is no longer a scourge: the vaccine is reliable in dealing with the measles virus and that reliability is embedded in the vaccine itself.

There is no vaccine for malaria. There is no pill or injection that will reliably render you immune from getting it. But there are counter-measures: mosquito nets, creams and protective clothing. Employ those counter-measures assiduously and you won’t contract malaria. But spend one night out of the mosquito net in a danger area and despite hundreds of other nights under it, you could contract the debilitating disease.

In the case of protecting yourself against malaria, the reliability of the protection is embedded, not in a non-discriminating technology like a vaccine, but in a set of practices. And you have to keep up the practices – there is no other way in the danger area.

What does lean deal with: measles or malaria?
What has this to do with lean? You want your company to have zero defects, 100% on-time-in-full (OTIF) delivery capability, consistently high productivity, great staff morale and delighted customers, right? Don’t we all!

Unfortunately we have to look to malaria for our lessons, not measles. Whilst some automation may embed a certain level of reliable effectiveness and efficiency, we are decades away from a non-discriminatory, reliable ‘vaccine’ for our organisational challenges. And that ‘vaccine’ (maybe like the ‘printing’ of our physical products?) will undoubtedly take humans out of the productive process even more than has already happened.

The Techno-Human Condition
In their startling and provocative book, The Techno-Human Condition, Allenby and Sarewitz regard the measles vaccine as a ‘Level 1’ technology – delivering reliable effectiveness in the purpose for which it was designed. The supply chain and healthcare system, ‘Level 2’ technologies, are needed to get the vaccine to the point of use and apply it: this is where quite a lot of unreliability is introduced. In contrast, for malaria, the Level 1 technologies are the mosquito nets, creams and clothing and the reliability is not embedded in them but in the Level 2 technology of ‘best practices’ to use those items correctly.

For measles, reliability is embedded in the vaccine. For malaria, reliability is embedded in practices, protocols or standard procedures; just so our organisational maladies: reliability lies in the consistent use of agreed best practices, or standard work, including ‘leader standard work.’

Use your mosquito net just occasionally in a malaria area, and you will get malaria. Use best practices and operator standard work just occasionally and you will get high failure rates, poor OTIF delivery performance, fluctuating costs, demoralised staff and unhappy customers. Allenby and Sarewitz made the connection for me: lean is a level 2 technology for dealing with organisational woes (= realities!). At root, lean is a management system, characterised by a daily management system that focuses on applying current best operating practices whilst simultaneously seeking better operating practices.

Relentless practice
That is why our Lean Summit Africa 2014 has the theme ‘Relentless Leadership’ – we are dealing with a malaria danger area in our organisations. There is no easy fix. We have to rely on relentless leadership commitment to a set of principles and routine practices. Reliable organisational health is embedded in practices – there is no vaccine.

The Lean Summit Africa 2014 is about understanding those principles and practices sufficiently to motivate actual committed behaviour. Or sustain the commitment and action. There is no other way to health.

Read more about what is on offer at the summit at:


Norman Faull
Chairman of the Lean Institute Africa