Lean thinking needs transformation, major expansion, and a basic shift in objectives – from improving operational efficiency to something much bigger: Continuous Regeneration of ourselves, our human economy, and of the natural world. All three depend on each other. To do that we must learn to think more than technique deep.
“Lean” refers to lean operations, quality systems, Training Within Industries, structured problem solving, and other techniques to eliminate operational waste and improve efficiency. We’ve cycled through technique fads for at least 100 years, ever since Scientific Management. Only those compatible with the underlying value system of business stick tight. However, every organization soon learns that making lean techniques “work” depends on teamwork and coaching people to think and problem solve. And either they make this change or the techniques stall out.
“Lean” began in manufacturing. Now it has penetrated health care, software development, and service industries. It’s often modified and takes on a different name, but a common objective is to eliminate waste, defined as “whatever we do that a customer would not pay for.” Everyone wants to eliminate waste – unless their income depends on it. The media blame automation for job loss and low wages. They don’t grasp the role of lean reducing jobs overall, but workers do, and fear it. Allaying this fear is part of the challenge of making lean stick.
We need a more comprehensive objective. The lean ideal of swift, error-free flows of work is limited to operations. Some companies come close, if only in production. For example, automotive companies expect this performance from suppliers. But something is still missing. That something is a value system that aspires to benefit all stakeholders of the company – workers, suppliers, and even the environment, provided they see the environment as a stakeholder.
Unfortunately, the prevailing value system of business even crimps ideal lean flow. That business ideal is maximizing value to primarily one stakeholder, ownership. Sometimes even that is construed as boosting the wealth of top managers over that of ownership.
Managers with a profit control mindset interpret lean as a set of techniques to reduce costs. To make lean “work,” programs to coach leadership of people have sprung up. Insightful managers realize the huge benefits of a stable workforce, inspired, inventive, cross-trained, and thus able to respond to rapid changes. They are not interchangeable line items in a chart of accounts – mere market commodities. They are the company.
But business values run deeper. A persistent ideal is growing volume and market share, so if we reduce costs and cut prices, surely we will win more customers and increase revenue. That’s commodity competition. The company that grows the biggest market share wins. This mindset is quantity-over-quality, although players in this game will deny it. (No company can admit to “poor quality.”)
If unchecked, a few winners in commodity competition take all the marbles, an outcome that antitrust enforcement is supposed to prevent. Customers of the winners may get more stuff at a lower price, but almost all other stakeholders are left holding empty bags. Smart companies, even if lean, avoid this by catering to market niches where “quality premium prices” hold margins that stabilize key stakeholders.
Another big movement today, “destructive disintermediation,” is creating more losers. This may have begun with Wal-Mart and industrial agriculture ripping up the economies of small rural towns, but now we have Amazon, Uber, Air BNB, and a app-fueled wannabe startups wiping out middlemen and all their transactions. Even Wall Street jobs are disappearing. For example, why check in with a desk clerk at a doctor’s office when it can be done on a digital tablet? What happens to the receptionist?
But all this is merely efficiency doing what we have long done. We need to look past efficiency. Is the business concept of progress effective doing what is needed in the longer-term interests of all of us? For starters, why did you need to visit a doctor at all, and if you did, is a digital greeting an experience you relish?
Instead of mindless continuous improvement of the current system, think Continuous Regeneration – regeneration of ourselves, of nature around us, of our value systems, and of the habits and beliefs that guide us. Our old system has hit its limits, and they are many. We have to reimagine what we are even trying to do.
Counteracting the present system is the sustainability movement, but it is compromised by having to couch obvious change in the framework of commerce in order to be understood, much less accepted. And sustainability practices are also framed as techniques: re-use, recycle, circular economy, alternative fuels, life cycle analysis, mass balance, and on and on. Regeneration is a word that tries to escape this.
Sustainability techniques hit the same walls that lean and techniques of lesser ambition do – the belief that a company is a money making machine for ownership, the belief that human welfare is surely defined by an expanding GNP, and the belief that the only route to better is more. And perhaps the biggest wall is the belief that other considerations are secondary to making money because that is so crucial to the functioning of the current system, and of the status systems that go with it.
Start thinking Continuous Regeneration and it quickly becomes obvious that much of the current system is one huge social illusion. Imagining something holistic greatly different is way outside our mental boxes, but imagining something practical that we actually do may not be quite as tough because we start doing differently while aiming for a still-dim vision. Two examples are the permaculture movement and “functional medicine,” which attempts to convert MDs into long-term system thinkers treating each patent.
So help us expand our thinking from short-term efficiency to long-term effectiveness. Think 10 to 100 years out. Regard health, for instance, as multi-generational well being and related to one’s environment, rather than addressing one symptom at a time.
For most of us, doing this is a change in value systems, and in the habits and beliefs that flow out of that value system. To regenerate yourself and help regenerate the natural world around you, please contact us about forming a learning circle to begin doing something where you are.