lean thinking

A Top 10 needs to come fast and furious, even one counting the web searches that bring people to this site.

Unlike the weekly music versions on the radio, this boy’s not going to achieve his countdown in one 3 hour slot.  But he is going to upload one hit a day for ten days running.  That, for him, is fast and furious.

Yesterday, I described today’s hit at No. 9 as “stonking”, or as the trusty Oxford online dictionary puts it

something impressive, exciting, or very large

Perhaps it was glib hyperbole and Tomas B is certainly no exponent of urban music.

He’s Tomas Bata, late Czech shoe-maker (and much more).

I looked for a Czech equivalent of stonking but the various online translation freebies don’t run to that level of slang.  The nearest I could find was působivý or vzrušující, so they’ll do me.  Apologies to any passing Czechs who will presumably find these computer-generated approximations laughable.

Tomas Bata was no laughing matter as a quick perusal of my blog post Lesser known heroes of improvement – No. 2 Tomas Bata will show.

I tagged him a hero of improvement because he was a pioneer ahead of his time in the development of modern management.  People searching for him who visited the HelpGov blog were mostly searching for principles of the Bata management system and it was indeed a whole system he developed.

No point in repeating what’s already written about him but a brief quote of what he said at one stage to his workers gives the flavour

We want to reach the situation that [our] shoes are cheaper and workers earn even more.  We think that our products are still too expensive and workers’ salary too low

Many managers still don’t understand what at first sight seems a paradox but is in fact a profound truth about work – you improve work by driving out inefficiencies, not only making your products (and services) cheaper but also better and allowing you to pay your workers more.

Personally, I’d put Tomas B much higher than No. 9 in a Top 10 search for the best advice on improving work.  But then I’m not searching for my own blog.

Tomorrow, No. 8 in my countdown, and a more topical tale of salaries, but greed and envy too.


This post is Part 3 of a response to a suggestion made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development.  If you don’t see it on this page, Part 1 is here and Part 2 here.

Coincidence is all.

In my snappily titled post Leadership is the key: redemption lessons expanded – No. 1 I mentioned a senior manager whose catch phrase was

I don’t care about processes.  I’m interested in outcomes.

Lo and behold.  As I check for the topics the aforementioned Ingrid K suggested bloggers like me might write about in 2011 I find

Why process still matters.  The importance of good governance in an outcomes based world.

And that’s all I need to set me off.

You won’t have known “my” senior manager and wild horses wouldn’t drag his name from me.

But I’ll bet you could name at least one boss you’ve had, may still do, who struts his stuff (it’s usually a male and they usually strut) shooting from the lip with this macho nonsense.

How do you always get an outcome?  Answer – by doing things in a series of steps one after the other.  That’s all a process is.  Getting the process right is essential to achieving a good outcome.

A small example.

I worked somewhere once where expensive consultants were brought in on a central government-funded programme to improve procurement.  They ran a workshop for admin staff responsible for placing orders with the in-house procurement team.  How did people place an order for a bog standard 5-wheel adjustable ergonomic office chair?

The expensive consultant explained the rudiments of process mapping.  Within a few minutes the road engineers had shown it took 8 actions in their department to order a chair, the social workers 13.  To put it another way, the social workers had to take 63% more actions than the road engineers to achieve the same end.

This is macho man(ager)’s cue to pile in with a cutting observation on trivial examples.

But hold on.

Work is by and large made up of routine activities carried out 10/100/1000 times a day/week/month.  They consume by far the greater part of an organisation’s resources.

If even a tenth could be carried out with 63% fewer actions the potential savings would be major.

Savings to help reduce budgets and improve customer service.  Keep the library open that might otherwise close.  Repair those potholes that feature in the local press every week.

Ingrid Koehler also links process with good governance.

Governance is often taken to mean the big stuff.  And so it should.  The probity and transparency with which councillors make decisions.  How big budgets are allocated and spent.

But if you accept the purpose of a council is to meet its customers’ needs (substitute citizens, taxpayers, residents, service users as your ideological preference dictates) then governance is also about ensuring as little resource as possible is used that does not add value for those customers.

Finally, Ingrid doesn’t just refer to outcomes but to an outcomes based world.

Oh, yes (sigh).  Outcomes are fundamental.  Of course.

However, too often central government tries to hold councils accountable for outcomes over which they have little or no control.

It’s OK for the proportion of domestic waste recycled but not for climate change.

It’s OK for the number of road accidents where highway design and traffic management is a root cause but not for the overall number of young people killed or injured in road accidents.

In other words, many of the issues that councils deal with are complex social problems with multiple and sometimes, if we are honest, unknown causes.  That sounds like another post.

But getting processes right is still fundamentally important.

The first of an occasional series in which I say more about the lessons some great people taught me about improving work through lean and systems thinking.  Previously, I said

Leadership is critical.  Without leadership, thorough-going transformation through lean/systems thinking is just not possible and that leadership has to come right from the top – as in my tale of Dave, the chief executive.

Re-reading what I wrote about Dave, I was surprised how little I said about him as a leader.  It boiled down to this

  • before he became a CE he’d been what I called a traditional director of finance, a safe pair of hands for a number of years but frankly not that inspiring
  • visiting a Japanese car manufacturer he had one of those “light bulb” moments when something clicks and the world is re-arranged for you forever – his was the right of assembly line workers to stop the line if something was wrong and the empowerment and trust it implied, a million miles from the command-and-control and blame culture of British work
  • the understanding that rather than employ experts to make the improvements required what was needed was to provide people with the understanding and support to do that themselves
  • he understood the good stuff is never easy.

These are some of the other things he did to lead lean and systems thinking in his organisation

  • hired the right consultants to transfer understanding and skills into the council, supported them and ensured he got great value for money from them
  • led his management team in a workshop (two whole days) on what it was all about
  • required them to drive it in their own departments and kept it on his own management team’s agenda
  • explained it to the politicians (this was after all a local authority) and got their buy-in
  • constantly visited front line staff and project teams to encourage, congratulate, celebrate and endorse the improvements they’d achieved
  • corrected inappropriate behaviour by managers (it happens)
  • chose the right person to drive the whole process on his behalf and supported him and his team of facilitators, making them feel the special people they were
  • used success to enhance the reputation of the council – with his peers, other councils, and the local business community, and through applying for (and winning) external awards.

The net result of all this was a sense of drive, commitment and buzz about the place.  People knew where they were going and how they were going to get there.

You can read your own messages into all this.

I’m tempted to generalise further but leadership is hugely studied (the lazy researcher’s tool of a Google search throws up 33 million [!] returns to “leadership book”, 24.3 million to “leadership quote” and 4.6 million to “leadership theory”).

Since I like stories so much I’ll confine myself to a few additional anecdotes from which you can draw your own conclusions

  • on another occasion Dave and his management team were trying to work out what values leaders in the organisation should adopt.  They all baulked – wrongly – at humility, confusing it in their minds with words like meek, mild, humble and ineffective.  Ironically, in his subsequent and genuine conversion to empowering staff to make improvements to their own work, Dave demonstrated humility in one of the most powerful ways a leader can but many find difficult – by accepting that other people in the organisation knew better than him about most things
  • leadership is not about a whole heap of technical understanding.  Several years into his job Dave thought of applying for a CE’s post in a larger organisation.  One reason he eventually decided not to were the 28 core competencies required of candidates.  Core competencies do not a leader make
  • Dave had a director with a no-nonsense reputation in the council.  His favourite phrase was I don’t care about processes.  I’m interested in outcomes.  It took the two day management team workshop to make him realise he couldn’t have been more wrong
  • lastly, we all have leaders we admire.  When Dave’s management team discussed this the usual range of role models was cited – Mandela, Churchill, Alex Ferguson, “my granny” and others.  Another director who said Adolf Hitler (it was surely pure coincidence that he was an accountant) was not amongst the first to embrace lean and systems thinking.

Back in October 2010 I finished a series of posts on this blog I called Tales of redemption through improvement at work.  They described how

  • real people in the public service transformed the service they gave their customers
  • they were enabled to transform their own working lives
  • they also made their work more efficient as an inevitable consequence of providing better service (something many managers still think is a contradiction in terms).

My stories got a good response (thanks folks) and 2011 is the year I take the ideas to the next stage.

In Tales of redemption through improvement at work – a conclusion: What these wonderful people have taught me I drew out eight lessons from what I’d learned.  In a self-denying ordinance I deliberately described each lesson in a single sentence.

That made for good reading but hardly did justice to each lesson.

So over the next few months I’ll be publishing eight posts under the general heading Redemption lessons expanded.

Each will start with what my conclusion was last time round and then add some further thoughts.  They’ll be based on practical experience and my own learning.

From the old...

That career began (confession time) when I shared a single phone with two other colleagues in a planning office and had to wait in a queue to plead with the operator (young people – this was a sort of call centre associate without the technology) for an “outside line”.

Before I left local government to set up my own business new graduates were asking in peeved tones on their first day at work where their laptop and Blackberry were.

...to the new

Changed times and, we hope, better times.

But human behaviour and aspirations in many ways remain constant.

Find out how – and maybe hear a few more stories – over the next months.  Redemption lessons expanded: No. 1 – leadership follows later this month.


The BBC’s wonderful albeit slightly grumpy old man John Humphrys is reporting from China this week.

He’s delivering some fascinating commentary every day.

One small insight came from his visit to a motorcycle company you’ve never heard of in a city you’ve probably never heard of (30 million population and growing).

Humphrys was struck by the slogans in Mandarin and English adorning the factory walls.

One especially took his fancy

To compete in price: live in shame.  To compete in quality: live in wealth

He characterised this as “very strange… and there was me thinking competing on price was exactly what got China where it is today”.


If he could (a) make allowance for the translation (how many slogans grace our productive places – there are still some left – in Mandarin?) and (b) check the background with his In Business programme colleague Peter Day he’d realise this is classic lean/systems thinking philosophy.

Perhaps if Humphrys had read

Drive up quality, drive down costs and price

he’d have got the point.

Frequent HelpGov blog readers and quality buffs generally will recognise the truth of the philosophy.

And they know it’s not for industry only.  It’s true for all work – public and voluntary sectors too.

Have you ever started telling a story that seemed to have no end?

I have.

I did it with our first daughter who would insist every night I tell her the next bedtime adventure of the Pink Mummy Car (PMC)  – a rather limp-wristed Citroen 2CV I had unwisely invented in a rare moment of literary creativity (©, just in case there’s any commercial mileage in the idea in a future career as children’s author).

Many years later I find I’ve done the same thing with my tales of redemption through improvement at work.

Bringing five real but suitably disguised people plus a composite facilitator figure to life has reminded me of the power and richness of story telling.

As I said in my introduction to the stories, I knew the series would end with my reflections in a final post.  But I’d forgotten how many lessons these wonderful people have taught me.

So I’ve modified my original intention to only add some reflections.

In a self-denying ordinance I’ve decided to use this post to briefly highlight eight themes emerging from these tales of redemption.

In future posts I’ll go into some of the themes in more detail.  If any especially interest you let me know.

What did I learn from these clients, put-upon hosts for my various visits, colleagues, and team members?

Let’s start with the most important.

Leadership is critical

Without leadership, thorough-going transformation through lean/systems thinking is just not possible and that leadership has to come right from the top – as in my tale of Dave, the chief executive.

The customer is king (and queen)

Often challenging in the public sector, but a focus that both Jasminder (the registrar’s tale) and Jeannie (the mail room supervisor) had: by focusing on their customers’ needs they also made their operations more efficient and moved closer towards the ideal of doing no work that did not add value for their customers.

Get the basic principles right

There’s no single blueprint for lean/systems thinking (some zealots claim there is) and you must do what works for your organisation but there are some fundamental principles you must get right:  you’ll find them in all six tales and in the other themes here.

Get the culture right

Leaders – CE Dave with his belief in empowerment, the NHS trust with their culture change workshops – understand that the right behaviour throughout their organisations is essential to achieving the improvements they knew were needed.

Involve everyone

Part of the culture that’s needed but important enough to warrant emphasising separately – the people who do the work are the best to improve it (with help and support), not only CEOs and directors but the middle-ramking people like NHS property manager Mike and front line workers like housing depot storeman George who was, to be blunt, illiterate: oh, and watch out for the professionals who try to opt out (like the NHS trust medics).

How to do it – processes, tools and techniques

Understand that all work flows step by step in processes and use the right tools and techniques to improve how it’s done, from Jasminder’s brainstorming with her team to generate ideas, through Xyz Ltd’s use of A3 reports that NHS manager Mike saw, to  George’s 5S depot tidy ups.

Get some early wins under your belt

The tales don’t spell it out but both Jasminder’s registration service and Jeannie’s mail room were early wins for lean thinking in their organisations – this is not about glib low hanging fruit but proving early on that this approach to work both increases efficiency and improves customer service.

Support, support, support

Make sure your experts are supporters, the heroic facilitators of my last tale – not a tribe apart.

Finally, like my desperate attempts to dream up more and more bedtime PMC stories (see above) remember, as CE Dave said, the good stuff is never easy and it’s a never-ending journey – which is what the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle in my introduction to these six tales is all about.

Facilitation is a fancy word for helping.

The best people to improve any work are the people who actually do it on a day to day basis.  But they do need some help.

I’m not so keen on experts – the whole tribe of people who know better than anyone else and are keen to keep their trade secrets to themselves.

Their motivation is sometimes commercial.  How much better to have a culture of dependency when you’re selling your services.  You can sell the same thing to the same organisations time and time again.  These people may have heard of the old age Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, give him a net and he’ll feed himself for a lifetime.  But they certainly don’t live that particular wisdom.

Then again, their motivation is sometimes professional or even psychological.  How much better to have that glow of superiority and be indispensable – the black belt, the guru.  If these people have ever heard of the cliché the graveyards are full of indispensable people they’ve forgotten it.

No, the most productive way to get systematic improvement into an organisation is through helping the people doing the work in it.

So this is the facilitator’s tale.

For a whole raft of reasons, this is the only one of our six tales that is a composite portrait of what is by and large a heroic and talented type.

As I said in the chief executive’s tale the good stuff is never easy.

That’s why facilitating improvement is challenging – whether it’s the consultant helping to transfer skills into the organisation (don’t hire them for any other reason) or the internal facilitator supporting people in the organisation.

There is an approach that says all this stuff is not about personality or people, but about system and process.

My answer to that is the old cliché Yes but…

Yes but because no matter the fair wind that a new endeavour has (chief executive’s, management team’s support, whatever), the first time people encounter this new way of working almost anywhere in an organisation it’s going to need Oomph! to make it work.

What I mean by Oomph! is what a good facilitator can deliver and what you must test before you train them and let them loose.

A good facilitator IS

  • a risk taker
  • competitive
  • intolerant of mistakes
  • assertive and confident
  • good at influencing people
  • enthusiastic
  • imaginative
  • idealistic
  • persuasive
  • good with words
  • fun and can entertain people.

BUT can be

  • intimidating at times
  • resentful of anyone wasting their time
  • disorganised.

and tends NOT TO BE

  • patient
  • conservative
  • careful before they take decisions
  • analytical
  • logical
  • a perfectionist.

And of course underlying all this they need to get it, to understand or be capable of understanding the lean/systems approach.

It’s a pretty formidable list and some of the characteristics may seem counter-intuitive.  But if you get a facilitator like this you’re flying.

I’ve probably never met (or hired) a facilitator with a 100% match to these skills but it’s also amazing how often the best turn out to have a 90-95% fit.

And if you’re recruiting your facilitators it’s amazing where you’ll find them.

They’re not necessarily the obvious professional high flyers with significant public sector experience.  Some of the best facilitators I’ve worked with in the public sector have come from backgrounds as diverse as the airline industry, the voluntary sector, retailers, sales training and the clerical office.

I hope you recognise facilitators like this who feature in my other five tales of redemption through improvement.

When you find them cherish them!

This is the last of this short series of “tales of redemption through improvement at work”.  It will be followed next week by a round-up of what I’ve learnt from the fantastic people I’ve described over the last few weeks.

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