The Loopy Guide to Getting Started with Lean

By Jon Miller Updated on September 27th, 2020

We often hear the question, “Where do I get started?” from people new to lean, continuous improvement or operational excellence. A simple, universal answer continues to evade us. The answer is rather situational. It depends on where you are, where you’re going, who’s going with you and more. Thinking too much about this question can make a person loopy.

Here is the loopy guide to getting started with lean.

Connect the Beginning to the End

In a loop, the end is connected to the beginning. Likewise, when starting out with lean, connect activities to the desired end. In practical terms this means think through what you want to achieve using Lean. This should not be a brand-new set of objectives, but rather existing goals. How can lean help you achieve them?

Where can we use Lean to build capabilities to delight our customers through speed, flexibility or reliability? Once you’ve identified some opportunities to exploit, it’s time to learn about and begin practicing the 80/20 principle. Rather than creating a grand and detailed strategy, keep it simple. Prioritize. Which are the vital few? One of the tenets of effective change management is to plan for some early wins. Where is the low-hanging fruit? Complete this initial purpose loop by connecting the intent to get started with the intent to achieve these ends.

Pattern Problem Solving into Learning Loops

Sometimes we set goals for growth or to achieve excellence through lean. Sometimes we aren’t in a position to set ambitious goals because we are struggling to stay afloat. Whether the challenges we are facing are obstacles to our goals or a matter of survival, developing systematic problem-solving skills is an essential part of becoming Lean.

There are two parts to this. The first is to learn about the patterns of problem solving. These are also loopy in nature. Plan-Do-Check-Act, practical problem solving, the scientific method and their variants are cyclical. These approaches are designed as learning loops.

We define the problem, gather data, analyze causes, conduct experiments to address causes, and check our results. What we learn is that the experiments worked or didn’t work. What we must learn is why, and how to make use of that information. Gaining useful information about the content of each problem is the second part of this learning loop.

Build Positive Feedback Loops

A critical part of the problem-solving pattern is to understand cause and effect. This begins with learning investigative techniques to help us answer, “What’s causing the bad things that are happening in our organization?” and “What’s causing the good things?” as well as “How much of a role does random variation play?” The better we can answer these questions, the better we can turn cause-and-effect into a predictable loop.

When we use the outputs of our problem-solving patterns as inputs for the next improvement, we have a feedback loop. One of the easiest ways to get started with improvement the lean way is to take many small steps. This also acts as a feedback loop, similar to compound interest. When we take small positive steps, their cumulative impact adds up to big savings over time. Not only that, making frequent small changes helps people see that their small ideas might also become reality. This in turn creates more belief, enthusiasm and a sense of power over their own work.

Close Every Loop

A simple way to get started is to ask people to make very small improvements every day. Yet this is not enough even when we’re making steady progress towards our goals. “Fix what bugs you” and “Minimize waste” go a long way. Daily improvement will be much harder for some functions and processes than others. Some people come up with better ideas when they understand what they are building, working from a set of principles, toward a vision.

And yet, it’s easy to get bogged down when getting started with lean, if we try to grasp the full complexity of the management system and its tools. Many of these tools have manufacturing origins. Even if they don’t seem to apply in your industry, it’s important to take the time to do a general survey of the tools and their underlying principles. People have adapted Lean to make it work for them in hospitals, software development, government agencies, farms and all sorts of surprising places.

Lean tools serve us best when they are used to build networks and systems. That may seem like a lot to think about when getting started. A good commonsense explanation of what we are building with lean is the autonomous nervous system. In the human body, the autonomous nervous system allows us to breathe, digest, etc. without conscious thought, while giving our conscious mind signals when something is wrong. Lean builds a network of feedback loops so that every function, every process, every part of the organization is linked to achieving a common purpose.

Double the Loop

Not last, but in parallel to, and as a through-line for all of this is to keep people in the loop. On the one hand, this means keeping people informed, communicating and showing respect by listening. On the other hand, it also means that we need to learn how we learn. Part of this is removing cognitive biases, assumptions and misconceptions. Success with lean relies on learning about our own biases, learning styles and communication tendencies. The deliberate practice new behavior patterns, called kata, is a good way to get started with this.

Doubling the loops of learning and feedback allows us to become more self-aware. Feedback from the first loop tells us if we are off course to our goals. The feedback from the second loop invites us to become aware of we need to adjust the goals, decision-making rules or problem-solving process. Lean starts with understanding that we must be committed to improving how we improve.

Be Loopy Like the Fox

Another meaning of the English word loopy is “crazy”. Indeed, by traditional thinking, Lean is crazy. Give the frontline workers power to make changes, or even self-manage. Take assets off the books by reducing inventory. Stop running equipment if there’s no demand, even if this means absorbing less overhead. Stop work to address problems or call for help. Favor many small improvements over a few splashy ones. Ask teams to spend ten to fifteen minutes every morning in meetings. These things may appear foolish or strange but are actually very clever. Lean is loopy like the fox.

  1. Jonathan Wiederecht

    October 5, 2020 - 11:34 am

    Jon – so enjoyed this week’s discussion. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Jon Miller

      October 5, 2020 - 2:05 pm

      Glad you liked it Jonathan

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