What’s in the Continuous Improvement Attic?

By Jon Miller Updated on August 3rd, 2020

Whether we’re talking about houses, management systems, or vacation plans, it’s almost always a good idea to build from the foundation up.

Even when we think we already have a firm foundation, it’s worth checking before we attempt to build upwards and set additional burden onto it. Many organizational transformations are like castles built on sand. We neglect of humble daily Lean management practices and routines, the basic behaviors and values erode, and our proud systems teeter.

How Much of Lean Management is Foundational?

We speak a lot about the foundations of continuous improvement. Toyota Kata questions for coaching and improvement. Routines and rituals that make up the Daily Management System. Workplace organization, safety and cleanliness through the 5S. Training Within Industry (TWI) to secure the ability to learn, improve and pass on job knowledge. Regular cleaning, inspection and lubrication of equipment in TPM maintain good operating conditions. Standardized work as a prerequisite of stability. And the list goes on.

Arguably, the main body of lean management is foundational. Perhaps it’s even 80% foundation-building and 20% tinkering with sophisticated systems of synchronization and execution of projects, work or strategies. Mature Lean management systems often appear commonsense in practice. We may assume “foundational” means basic, easy or entry-level, when in fact the word means “must be solid.”

Sometimes You Start in the Attic

This weekend I had ventured into our attic to solve a small problem. This was only my second time up there in the past five years. I donned heavy work clothes, a baseball cap, a miner’s headlamp, a mask, and my courage. It’s a thirty-year-old house and as far as I know nobody has died here, so I wasn’t concerned about ghosts. The attic is a dark, hot, dusty place. In winter, cold. The floor is invisible, buried in a thick layer of blown-in insulation. It was slow going, finding my footing a step at a time. This attic is full of odd angles, mysterious protrusions. There was a large, old VHF antenna, presumably disconnected. Old nails reaching down and out from unexpected places. I took a few photos and we called it a draw, my plan to return after breaking down the problem into smaller bits.

What’s in the Continuous Improvement Attic?

Attics are important but not always inviting places in a house. This made me wonder; what’s in the continuous improvement attic? If the various aforementioned items are foundational to building lean, agile or otherwise resilient and adaptive enterprises, how would the metaphor extend to the topmost part of the house, namely the attic? It was an idle thought on a Sunday afternoon, but perhaps something worth exploring.

Attics aren’t Structurally Essential

The attic does little to hold the house together. It’s a byproduct of the need to create a roofline. The roof is there to keep out the weather and to slow heat transfer. Block-shaped buildings with flat rooflines don’t have attics. Attics aren’t essential to buildings. What’s the continuous improvement equivalent? Perhaps it’s the infrastructure and resources track and report improvement results to customers, headquarters or other external parties. When designed with a flat roof and good drainage, attics, and possibly reports, and unnecessary.

Attics Provide Top-level Maintenance Access

Buildings can route utilities and services through the crawl space, attic or other ways. When we need access to electrical, ventilation or plumbing about our topmost floor, it’s certainly useful to have an easily accessible attic. The attic may be the only way to access and reroute, or rewire the flow of power, data and other fluids at the topmost level. In this regard, the continuous improvement analogue may be Leader Standard Work, Gemba Walks, and associated coaching routines and practices at the senior management level.

Useful for Storage or Recreation

While crawling around in the attic, as I adjusted to the strangeness of the space, something unexpected happened. I began to see potential. Even in our odd and spidery attic, there was more useful space than I remembered. With some of flooring here, a skylight there, investment in a retractable attic ladder and some built-in shelving…

What is the Lean management equivalent of the leftover space that services taken-for-granted functions, appears useless, but harbors possibility? I think it’s the idea of continuous improvement itself. Too often we build our Lean management system, arrive at what we perceive to be its limits, and stop looking for areas to improve. Or we may struggle to see how we can get value from uncomfortable, less visible, seemingly useless spaces overhead.

It’s place and a notion worth revisiting on a cooler day, once the summer to-do list has been whittled down

  1. James La Trobe-Bateman

    August 3, 2020 - 10:33 am

    How about thinking about the ‘Attic’ as contingency plans. What do you do if a hurricane disables your plant? What to do if everybody gets sick? etc

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