Applying Lean Principles to a Business Planning Meeting

This past week my business partners Kevin Meyer, Ron Pereira and I met face to face over a span of two days. The purpose was long-term business planning, near-term goal-setting and prioritization of supporting projects. The three of us have very different styles of thinking, approaching work and arriving at decisions. This diversity is a strength but also presents challenges when tackling complex issues while managing by consensus as we do.

Nevertheless we achieved a surprising amount in about a dozen hours. In my estimation, we progressed more than during any other collection of twelve hours we’ve spent in discussion and planning. What was different? Is there some magic to bunching the hours together? Was it being in the same room versus being in a video conference? Is it just getting better with practice over the years? Possibly. But there is another, perhaps greater reason.

We set these dates in our calendar several months ago. Back then, this meeting felt a long way off. Couldn’t we arrive at these decisions sooner by dedicating a few more hours on the phone? But we didn’t wait to make preparations. We drafted an agenda and began setting the main themes in a shared online document about five weeks ago. Over that time each of us spent a few hours reading, thinking and commenting on it, and then reading and commenting on each other’s comments.

As a result, by the time we were face to face, we had greater clarity on the key to issues to decide. Not only that but we developed a better understanding of each other’s viewpoints, assumptions and personal priorities. Almost all potential disagreements, doubts and questions were worked out in writing or at least openly addressed well in advance of meeting face to face. This contributed to a smooth meeting.

Although we didn’t intentionally apply lean tools for this planning meeting, in hindsight we practiced a few good lean habits. Namely

Quick Changeover / SMED. Specifically, external setup. Our pre-work was external to the valuable and limited face to face, or internal time. We had a full agenda that didn’t feel tight thanks to the homework we had done. We had collected, organized, prioritized and sequenced the issues (5S of information, if you like) well in advance of the meeting. We were as ready as a pit crew.

Ringi-sho. But we are not a pit crew, and long-term business planning is not as mechanical as replacing tires and topping up fuel in a race car. In hindsight I realized that our preparation document was a form of ringi-sho. In Japanese companies this is a document that travels among stakeholders for comment, questions and approval of a project or a decision on specific issues requiring input from various stakeholders.

It is a form of serial debate and discussion through written word. This requires more elapsed time than arguing it out in a room during a meeting. It leaves time to reflect. We don’t need to react in the moment to what we hear or see. We can sleep on it. We can contact others and seek to understand their comments person before adding our own. Once completed, this process reduces the time it takes to meet in person, if necessary.

The ringi-sho is not for all issues. When time is of the essence to capture opportunities, address urgent problems or take away burden from a person, it makes sense to take decisions quickly through a different process. The key is to be aware of whether we need decision on a short-term band-aid or long-term strategic investment. Both require solid grasp of facts and an appreciation of cause and effect. But only the former demands immediate action in most cases.

There are a few key reflections on what makes a ringi-sho type external setup for business meetings successful. It’s critical to set a time limit. All input should be complete a few days or weeks prior to any scheduled meeting or decision due date. Also, this process may be impractical for very large topics across very large, traditionally hierarchical organizations. Test it out for smaller issues or for big ones at the department level, and gradually expand to find the limits of its utility.

Hoshin planning. Although we didn’t go into this meeting calling it hoshin, we did identify our North Star, outlining a five-year vision and start pruning away things that may be nice to have but ultimately distract from achieving the vision. We began developing detailed plans where solutions are known, and planning experiments where they are unknown. We are engaging the team in goal-setting. We will reflect these in the daily accountability process.

Obviously the three of us were not ignorant of these principles and methods, but neither did we intentionally say, “Let’s make sure we do external changeover for our hoshin meeting by using a ringi document.” I guess it goes to show that once you have the habits it matters much less what we call the things we do.

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