September 28, 2017
It’s another week in Leanville and there’s another new book professing to finally explain what lean is and the secrets of getting there. Just like last week, and the week before…and probably next week too. It’s been a couple of decades of lean for me now, and more and more it seems like lean was a lot simpler back in the day, when I was managing a global systems business inside a large corporation. We had a dire need to improve dramatically, so we chose to expand that “lean thing” beyond manufacturing. Whatever lean was – we weren’t really sure.
The challenge (and now, I think, blessing) 20 years ago was that we didn’t have many resources to guide us. When we had a problem, we solved it the old-fashioned way – by rolling up our sleeves and actually solving it ourselves using hard work and science. It wasn’t always pretty at first, but we got the job done and solutions eventually became more elegant as our organization learned from itself. Nobody argued, or cared much for that matter, about what lean was or wasn’t because it was always destined to be what we made it.
Even by current standards, our results were impressive. New products were developed in half the time and produced with 30 percent less cost. From scratch, we created a sales and marketing process for quantifying customer value and calculating strategic pricing models. We streamlined our bottlenecked finance and purchasing operations, engaged our IT organization to improve delivery, and formed a management system to level-load global project and production work. Combined, it led to a double-digit improvement in operating income, while the organizational strategy and capability seeds we planted then are still paying off for the current leaders.