Lean Office

Breaking Down Barriers to Continuous Flow

By Jon Miller Published on January 28th, 2008

One way to look at lean is that it’s all about enabling the continuous flow of actions, information, materials, services and cash in such a way that these things generate of goodness, however you may define that. The theory is that when things flow they take less time and resources. When this theory fails, lean says that a problem has been exposed and that by solving this problem we win in two ways: by enabling flow and by getting rid of that problem. Relentless focus on continuous flow can creates a positive feedback loop.
By the same logic, barriers are bad whether they be mental barriers that prevent you from changing, organizational barriers that prevent you from doing the right thing because it would be overstepping your bounds and onto the toes of others, system barriers such as large batch production caused by long changeover times or other drivers of false economies of scale, or simply physical process barriers such as walls between executives or miles of distance between points of production.
The lean leader who understands this can be recognized by three behaviors. First, the lean leader makes a point of finding and removing barriers and thereby enabling flow. Second, the lean leader seeks to verify that barriers remain removed and flow continues, and they make it part of their routine to go to the gemba to check. Third, the lean leader teaches people how to think in this way by enlist their ideas of others in solving such problems, rather than personally solving the problem or commanding it to go away.
A January 28, 2008 article in the Wall Street Journal titled Japan Airlines Tries to Rise Above Legacy is an interesting case study in a lean leader attempting to take a large, bureaucratic organization in a new direction by removing barriers. An excerpt from the article reads:
Fed up with sluggish decision-making, Haruka Nishimatsu, chief executive and president of Japan Airlines Corp., last June yanked all 10 of the company’s headquarters-based directors out of their respective departments and bunched them together in an open-plan office with identical plain wooden desks.
Today, he says, JAL’s top executives can chat more readily with one another and focus better on the day-to-day challenges of running the airline from their single command post on the 24th floor of their main building.
“Management should be visible,” says the CEO, who chips away at other internal barriers with companywide emails he calls “Nishimatsu Direct.”

Winning organizations should lose no time to move their best thinkers into the same room when they are not on the gemba or with customers. Management is visible. But it occurs to me that bureaucracies in general are not willing to do what it takes to win. They are willing to do what it takes to stay where they are and to maintain a system that rewards such behavior.
“You have to remember the history of JAL,” says Mr. Nishimatsu, who insists that even low-level staffers address him using the common honorific san rather than shacho, or president. “It was a government-owned company. There were bureaucratic overtones in the company for many years. … I think now we’re at a good place.”

One of the counterintuitive things about lean-style continuous flow from a management point of view is that it reduces the amount of control any individual manager has over a process. When managers cannot stop the flow of information because barriers have been removed and they have been “exposed”, and when processes flow so quickly that they must rely on the people under them to understand the goals of leadership and act on them, there is a loss perceived of power. It is in fact a loss of control or the need for such control.
But the power of an executive who has removed barriers, goes to see find the problems and teachers their people to take control of their processes increases their personal power and reach tremendously. But it might also involve sharing a room with 9 other executives and taking a walk to the gemba each day.

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