Lean. A topic you increasingly hear under discussion in almost any business situation. Originally a manufacturing concept, the principals involved have seen it become increasingly relevant for any part of a company reliant on processes and their effective flow.

What will drive the changes you’re looking for?
In short, top down canalizing of bottom up initiatives. Sub optimization usually results when the chosen initiatives are only put forward from the work floor. The guys working in these jobs are trained up, full of enthusiasm, see the problems on a daily basis and are keen to make their own lives easier. However, these changes don’t really stand a chance when they’re not supported by top level management and integrated into the wider business strategy and planning.

To gain a real foothold in the business, ideas need to be phased down from top-management, consistently represented in the strategic decision making. They need to be targeted at the bigger issues holding up flow within the business, rather than with tinkering at the operational level.

The company direction need to see lean as a journey that requires continuous adjustment, looking to the entire value stream when driving improvements and understanding that only ongoing determination to do better will create a genuinely efficient operation. The workers have to initiate the plan, but their efforts must be part of a bigger picture. They must execute a business wide plan, rather than focusing on small, piecemeal, local adjustments that seem to make a difference to their personal contribution.

The other absolutely key concept, and the true success of the ‘Japanese way’, is the genuine mobilization of every grey cell in the organization. From the top executive to the cleaning staff, every day, everyone needs to be passionate and determined to look for ways to do things better. They need to have ownership of the business and passion to make it as successful as it can possibly be.

And don’t be afraid to think big. You can’t consider the total value stream if you’re continually busy with small projects. The end results come with effective stock level management throughout the entire business, tangible shortening of lead times, and true understanding of what value for the customer represents. These things are not achieved by focusing closely on individual roles or tasks.

Understanding that if you fail to deliver value, you’ve lost your raison d’etre can take a seismic shift in thinking for some professionals. Many businesses think that they know what their customers want, but do they really? Are new ideas, products or features genuinely tested in the market? How many new products have misfired when they’ve gone into physical reality, despite the brilliance of the idea and the thoroughness of its development? It’s the practice that will determine success. Assumptions from geniuses are still assumptions. It’s the response of real customers that can tell you whether you’ve got a winner on your hands. Any business that doesn’t have the customer at the center of all their thinking should be prepared for a difficult road ahead.