Lean is all about people. Few get very far arguing against this proposition because, when you do, you lose the people. As with any socio-technical system, engaging the people plays a large part in the success of lean. It feels good to say this because we are people, and it makes us feel important. Perhaps we say this to correct traditional approaches to improving quality, speed or cost that placed blame or burden on people. Is lean really “all about people”?
The English expression, “it’s all about…” does not mean “it’s only about” or that “it is 100% concerned with” something. The expression means that “it” is the most important factor in a particular situation. In that sense, is it true that “lean is all about people?” Is the people factor the most important one? What are other factors that we need to weigh? There are three, including people.
Flow. We live in a universe in which we experience events across time. Time passes without regard to humans. Humans have a limited amount of time to live. We have no control over the wealth or genes we are born with, only over how we spend our time. Lean helps us to transform our resources of knowledge, energy and money into higher-value goods, services and experiences. When people value our output they reward us via an exchange for something we value. The more such value we can create and trade in the limited time we have, the better our lives become. Working in a flow allows higher value output with less input of resources and time.
This “flow” is not to be confused with the immersed, energized and focused flow state that psychologists describe. These are two separate things. The flow behavior in a lean system does not rely on human perception or experience to exist. It is inherent in the way that resources move through capacity-constrained processes in our time-dimensioned universe.
The way of working that is in opposition to flow is batch-and-queue. Much of lean is concerned with recognizing and reducing batch sizes. Batches are everywhere, not only in manufacturing but whenever we commit time or resources to any endeavor. In general, larger batches increase costs and slow down the flow of information back from the customer. Various lean methods such as SMED, TPM, takt-flow-pull, cell design, 3P, kanban etc. aim to reduce transaction costs that are linked to batching. As batch sizes go down, speed and quality improve. This results in lower cost. This is a virtuous cycle. When processing costs are reduced without regard to flow, quality and speed can suffer, raising total cost. When batches are reduced, faster information feedback loops allow the possibility to learn and make adjustments faster. This has a greater long-term benefits on productivity and inventories than the initial reduction in speed through the queue from batch size reduction. In research and development environments, new product launches or business startups this can mean the difference between life and death.
For those interested in a deeper dive on this topic, Don Reinertsen’s one-hour keynote The Practical Science of Batch Size is excellent. Viewing speed of 2X is recommended for native English speakers.
Arguably, “lean is all about flow”.
Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion.