Lean Consulting, Packaging and the Slow Path to Success

Pork belly rib in a barbecue sauce

I eat out too often. This is the factor of the amount of work-related travel and the difficulty of preparing my own food in a time and materials-efficient manner while on the road. This is one of the reasons why too many lean consultants are not lean at all, in the physical sense. Most of us can do some personal kaizen in this area. This was reinforced at a personal level yesterday as an empty stomach drove me to choose a full rack of ribs. Never order food on an empty stomach and never hire lean consultants when you desperately need them. You are likely to consume wastefully.

Lean consulting has always struck me as a poor descriptor for the work we do. Ironically the definition and standards around lean are still quite loose. The term has existed more for marketing reasons than because it is well-loved. “Lean” is pithy if not descriptive in this context meaning roughly “getting more from less” rather than “having less fat” in comparison to something less lean. Living in lean times has quite the opposite feel than “living in good times” although admittedly there is often more waste in good times. What are we to do with this “lean” packaging for the work we do?

People have variously tried JIT (“didn’t work”), kaizen (“too Japanese”), operational excellence (“too operations-focused, too wordy”) or TPS (“we don’t make cars, we’re not Toyota) in place of lean. There is a whole school of lean software that variously calls itself agile, kanban and so forth to express similar practices and philosophies. Lean six sigma waxes and wanes in popularity, but this again is just additional packaging since true lean should have most of six sigma built in, and a correct application of six sigma would lead black belts to benchmark and seek out countermeasures from lean practices.

TQM is actually not a bad description at all considering the benign sandwich by the words “total” and “management” of the meat of quality. Cost, on-time delivery, safety and human development are all aspects of quality of visions, a quality process and quality of life. But we abandoned TQM years ago for reasons that were less related to packaging and more to the fact that it was too much like real work. TQM involved real change in behavior, real commitment and long-term dedication. In food terms it was not as processed as lean, there was more fiber and less sugar in TQM than in lean. Many who abandon lean do so when the sugar high has worn off and they grow irritable at the work that lies ahead.

Just as the term “lean consulting” (consulting that is waste free – REALLY?) is quite the chuckle-raiser, the concept of lean cuisine seems quite ridiculous when looked at squarely. The whole notion of cuisine, as in food preparation for the purpose beyond nutrition but for enjoyment, entertainment and even excess, picks a fight with the notion of lean. But luckily this is not a serious field of cuisine so we don’t need to worry the issue. Lean cuisine is mostly a brand of package diet foods. It is not particularly cuisine, and whether it is lean or not depends on one’s total calorie intake, calories burned, and so forth. It is a packaged solution looking for a problem. Sound familiar? This brings us back to lean consulting.

A great deal of processed food, those calories which come in a box, a bag or other unnatural packaging, are more convenient than healthy. They are quick fixes but not long-term solutions. Lean and healthy lifestyles require being mindful of what we eat, getting some daily exercise, adequate sleep, and these things don’t come neatly packaged in a box.

Furthermore, a lifestyle that allowed us to prepare our own food (if not grow our own) is often cheaper, better tasting and healthier. It is fit to purpose. We can say the same thing about how we grow, prepare and serve (not on a plate!) the problem solvers within our organization. The slow path to success that is fit to purpose is more effective in the long run.

Regardless of the product, we throw away the packaging and consume what is inside. People who market the product value the packaging as it motivates people to purchase. This is a dilemma for the consulting industry as we want and need to sell our goods and do good things for our clients, yet must package them to a certain degree to facilitate the distribution and sale of these services. There is part of human nature that wants to try a familiar brand or something new, and there is a convenience factor for both the customer and the service provider in buying a packaged service rather than a tailored one. Not everyone has time to take the slow path to success.

It is best to eat just in time: what is needed, when it is needed in the amount needed. As in TPS, so in food, this approach will surely cause us to design out false economies of scale and design in sustainable high quality and low cost. In the future when faced with the option of a full rack, I will target 50% reduction.

3 Comments

  1. John Santomer

    February 15, 2011 - 10:28 pm

    Dear Jon,
    Couldn’t agree less…But try this, I bring a colleague on lean who is just as famished as I and we order one salad and one rib rack. Have the server bring the salad first to stave off the initial pangs and serve the ribs later. We both share the order, got the 50% off the rack, got healthy vegetables from the salad and paid off just 50% of the dime.
    Off course you first have to find a colleague, and home grown produce tops all suggestions(taste, healthy advantage). Although, my colleague and I couldn’t finish a whole one in a sitting… 😉 Wonder how lean is that?

  2. Joseph

    February 22, 2011 - 11:42 am

    Jon.
    I totally agree with your summary of waste removal systems.
    All of the different systems have their individual merits. They are all tools in our tool box and as people and companies become resistant to certain systems we should change the tool and the tools name.
    The idea of lean is to continually evolve and that doesn’t just apply to the people & systems that are being worked on. The trainers must also evolve and re-invent their systems.
    Your recent post about the LEAN failure at the, “Japan Post Office” shows the current issues. If Lean is struggling in its current form in its home land then it may be an indicator that Lean in its current form must CHANGE to stay alive and effective at what it is for. The removal of waste.
    Workers and trade unions are starting to resist the introduction of Lean when all that they see is labour being removed. This seams to be the only thing that management want out of Lean. The use of Lean to improve, quality, output, cost reduction, order to delivery times, operator quality of life. Do not get any time with companies. Lean is used as a tool to remove labour so that managers can say to their workers. It was not us that did it to you. It was those naughty LEAN CONSULTANTS. It only works for a short time. Then the people will push back.
    Companies show that they do not want to launch Lean when they give a brief that only allows savings to be investigated on the shop floor. The offices and management systems are seldom subjected to waste removal. Having worked in offices there is more waste in them as a percentage than most shop floors.
    Lean is not the be all and end all of waste removal and it must look inside its self. To stand still is to go backwards.
    Have a nice day.

  3. Lean Consultant

    July 31, 2011 - 3:11 am

    Instead of look at a value stream by hospital and patient type I propose looking at a value stream by prevention and management of diseases instead of treatments. With that you have to look at several more factors like how do you prevent more diseases as well as effectively manage current ailments so there doesn’t need to be emergency treatment. The value streams becomes more of a value chain linking public health, in home care, primary physicians, and hospitals all playing a crucial role.