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Jeff Liker

Dan Jones: Lean Service Delivery

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Saturday, February 27, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Taiichi Ohno is reported to have said that the shop floor is a reflection of management. In my experience this is so true. Unless management can articulate a convincing case to change it is easy to get stuck in fire-fighting mode. Good people trapped in a broken process without a clear purpose will never improve. Well intentioned efforts to change the culture or even to redesign processes will run into the sand if the purpose or the performance gaps that need to be closed and the financial consequences of doing so are not clear.

This means management seeing lean not just as a way of empowering employees to improve their own work but also as a management task to focus efforts on the vital few actions that would make the biggest difference to the performance of the organisation, and to the experience of its customers and employees. This in turn means digging down to the root causes of the broken value streams that fail to deliver the required performance and having the courage to deselect and focus efforts on these vital few.

Deselection and focus should start at the top. Stand up rather than sit down meetings, visual project management instead of death by Powerpoint and only working on the vital few actions all free up the time to walk the value streams and ask searching questions. The five whys translate diffuse high level performance gaps, such as costs are too high or customers are being let down, into precise actions at key locations that will make the biggest difference. What to do and where to act are not obvious from the executive suite.

Although widespread involvement in Kaizen is nice, the key to improving performance and changing hearts and minds is not to try to do everything the same way at once! There are two dimensions to this. First in service delivery organisations a large part of the work is what Toyota would call created demand, unnecessary demand or rework that results from the poor “right-first-time-on-time” at each step down the broken service delivery process. Stephen Parry in Sense and Respond shows how to categorise this created demand by the underlying question being asked so that the most frequent and costly root causes can be tackled one by one. Doing so turns front line staff into problem solvers. They love it and stay, created demand falls away and customer satisfaction soars. But this only works if the organisation can get away from piece-work payment systems for employees and by clients.

Second Ian Glenday in Breaking Through to Flow shows that 5% of everything we do, whether it is policies, orders, patients or products, typically account for 50% of the workload. By initially separating these high-volume, standard jobs from the rest it is relatively easy to streamline and error proof these work flows. This creates stable and predictable routines and improves customer satisfaction while eliminating much of the frustration with the work. This in turn frees up the time to give adequate attention to the tail of complicated jobs and for staff to improve their own workflows. Staff love it because it breaks the vicious circle of blame, fire-fighting and hiding problems.  Again this is only sustained if management recognises this is just the beginning of a virtuous circle of improvement rather than a one off opportunity to cut heads.

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