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This year I was fortunate to accompany our director to a meeting of the Lean Global Network (LGN) in Wroclaw, Poland. It was an eye opening experience from both travelling and work perspectives. I was amazed by the variety of soups that the Polish made because almost every meal started with soups. We had beetroot soup, cucumber soups and many others that I cannot remember. In addition to the food and architecture of the old town of Wroclaw I enjoyed the company of people who shared a passion for developing our understanding of the body of knowledge of lean thinking and practice. Sitting amongst my new associates whose experience of working with lean exceed half my age; I was challenged to reflect on how my understanding of lean changed over the year and was even changing at that moment in time.

I first heard of lean as an undergraduate Industrial Engineering student. When I started working I considered lean to be one of the methods or approaches I could use to improve processes. I used tools like mapping, performance measurements, cause-and-effect diagrams, 5Whys, Pareto charts and others. I never said to anyone that I ‘did’ lean and primarily used the tools without associating them with a specific methodology. My basic thinking went something like: “Improvement is the responsibility of us, the specialists, and the results of our intervention were a testament of our capability.” After results were achieved we would move on to the next area that needed our assistance. My thoughts on sustain went something like: “As long as the line staff followed the new process the results would be maintained but if external factors create a need for a process review the staff can always call us back.”

Interestingly when I did my MBA research I realised that introducing improvement is the easy part. The real challenge is in sustaining the results and an even harder challenge is going beyond sustaining by building improvement cycles beyond the initial improvement. It was at this stage when I joined LIA and I became aware that there’s a need to develop a daily management system and leader standard work (defined as “predictable, repeatable standard activities by leaders that build people’s ‘problem-solving muscle’ and move them ever closer to daily continuous improvement”) as means to continue with the improvement. My thinking changed to: “Improving the work is the responsibility of both management and the people who do the work.”

As I sat and listened to the discussions at the LGN meeting I had many ‘A-HA’ moments. I noticed that the presentations didn’t use the label lean but used lean thinking and practice instead. This made me think that by just using the label of lean we may lose sight of the fact that there’s both the thinking aspect and there’s the practice aspect to lean. This realisation is important to me because the practice aspect is easy to see and replicate, but the thinking aspect, although not visible, is also critical as in a lean organisation problems are defined and thought about differently.

A new perspective emerged as I took in more of what was being said in the room. I thought: “Yes, lean is a leadership methodology because it is about developing people through problems.” Eager to test my hypothesis I decided to talk to some of the delegates. “What’s your purpose for developing the people?” I was asked by the first person I interviewed. He said everything should start from purpose and this purpose has to be linked to the customer need. In addition he said there are lots of problems in a company but the right problems are checked by purpose. My other interviewee said no problem is a big problem for an organisation that wants to be lean. He asked: If you believe that problems are good, then how do you help people to see the problems? What kind of systems do you set up to make problems visible? How do you develop the people to solve the problems as soon as they occur?

Oct2015 graphic elephant
I reflected on the words from one of my interviewee who said: “Lean is just the name of a method and its objective is to solve the problem between our capability and the customer need…it’s not a special intervention, but it’s a lifestyle of the organisation” and remembered this image that I saw from a presentation by Smalley and Sobek. I may know about process improvement and the tools but I realise they are only a fragment of the picture. I therefore think it is safe for me to conclude by saying that I haven’t mastered lean, but I am learning each day.

Kind regards,


P.S. Our workshop dates for 2016 are already up on our website, we look forward to seeing you there!

TT profile picTshepo is an Industrial Engineering and MBA graduate who has worked in operational planning, business system design and continuous improvement roles. He joined LIA in 2014 and works with the team that aims to develop the concepts of continuous improvement in the public health sector within the South African context.