Two years ago, I was the smartest Lean Thinker in the room. I had started a role with a new company with the management charter to make it "Lean" and change the continuous improvement culture. I knew all the techniques for waste elimination in both manufacturing and business processes. I had been value stream mapping, 5S-ing, and kaizening for almost 20 years. I had my "copy-paste" plan from my past experiences ready to deploy but all that changed when I attended a 5 day intensive Innovation Mentor Boot Camp.
I was volun-told shortly after joining my new company as the Continuous Improvement Manager that I would be attending an Innovation Mentor Bootcamp. To be honest, I could not have been less interested. It was scheduled for Chicago in late December which I knew would be miserable. I already had my plan to "lean" out the company and was ready to get started. It became a "Why Me?" moment. The reality was that I did not have the seniority or credibility to push back or refuse this opportunity. So when the time came for the training, I dragged my skeptical self to the airport.
Five days later, I found myself back on a plane heading home enlightened, humbled and stunned. I had my perfect plan for changing the improvement culture at my new organization flipped upside-down. There was an entire ecosystem of tackling and solving challenges that I had some how missed on my journey of becoming the smartest lean thinker in the room.
I spent the following months reconciling how my new tools of defining challenges, discovering insights, ideating, prototyping and launching solutions could enhance my tried and true lean tools. I came to several win-win conclusions.
Spend More Time Defining Challenges
The challenge put forth by management to many continuous improvement teams is often as generic as "Go Improve that Process/Department." The innovation process of gaining a deep understanding of the challenge before starting can quickly amplify the improvement effort. There are a few great probing questions to ensure the challenge is focused and beneficial. Who is it a problem for? Why is it important? What will happen it the problem is resolved?
Seek Human Insights to Gain a Deeper Understanding of the Sources of Waste
Lean focuses on the identification and elimination of the Seven Wastes. Lean practitioners are well trained in time studies, value stream maps and waste walking. These activities become very analytical and miss a keen opportunity gain insight from the people involved in the processes. By using innovation lenses like empathy mapping and orthodoxies, lean practitioners can develop a much deeper understanding of the underlying why and create even better solutions.
Cast a Wider Net for Finding Solutions
The success of lean activities is often limited to the collective expertise of the participants. Most lean improvement techniques do not leverage outside solutions. Innovation discovery lenses like analogs and trends/discontinuities will undoubtedly provide improvement team with more impactful and step-changing solutions. These tools encourage teams to step way outside the box and ideate at an entirely different level.
Think Big, Start Small, Scale Fast, Fail Cheap
Although very advanced lean organizations are agile and implement quickly, most do not. The reason is simple. Most lean practitioners get stuck on deploying a highly-vetted perfect solution. Perfect is the enemy of innovation. The innovation practice of rapidly launching a prototype or testing a solution can dramatically accelerate the value creation of a lean activity. The key is to test and iterate the solutions quickly with little to no cost. Once the concept is proven, you can then move quickly to create real value.
Certainly, there are more great synergies between Lean and Innovation. I am quite encourage to see these tool sets being used side by side in my organization's improvement activity everyday. I look forward to learning from others on how they are combining these ecosystems to create win-wins.
By the way, my story has a happy ending. Although I am now convinced that I am not the smartest person in the room, I was recently promoted to the position of Global Innovation Manager. Additionally I am fortunate enough to be participating in a full year Innovation Certification Program at Notre Dame. This old dog continues to learn new tricks.