How to do it

Watch this. Now you know how to cure the world of all known diseases.

  1. Become a doctor;
  2. Discover a marvellous cure for something;
  3. Wait till the medical profession really starts to take notice of you;
  4. Jolly well tell them what to do;
  5. Make sure they get everything right so there’ll never be any diseases ever again.

Lean, BPR or virtually all “process improvement” approaches that I have seen done, are as silly as this.

How to cure all processes of all known problems

  1. Get people in a room with large walls, post-its and marker pens
  2. Train people in LEAN (note to self: check what these abbreviations stand for)
  3. Map process, AS-IS. (note to self: check what these abbreviations stand for)
  4. Identify waste
  5. Eliminate waste
  6. Map process, TO-BE (note to self: check what these abbreviations stand for)
  7. Improve process.

Wait, where’s the new process you say? Why there it is! On that wall. In post-it notes.

The systems thinking lesson

Ruddy Norah, have I seen some poo in my time. Processes “improved” in rooms miles away from the actual processes, purely by moving some post-its around on a sheet of liner paper. That’s like looking at a picture of the Eiffel Tower and thinking that you’ve actually gone to France.

Ignoring by not addressing the reality of how you are going to change the work will lead to nothing. I have seen lots of “new processes” years later, written on scrolls of old yellowing and cracked wallpaper. Whoops! Careful! Don’t drop the post-its! It’ll break the process!

Except you can’t, this is a sickness caused by Documents я Us, confusing reality with documents about reality. You can’t improve a process by changing things on a wall. You aren’t anywhere near the process.

To improve there are two important things to remember:

1. “Things are the way they are because they got that way.”
2. “Unless you understand how they got that way, they are going to stay that way.”

Or, context. Systems don’t exist independent of other things, like culture, staff, the way things are done, what is paid attention to, the management thinking. In fact they mainly ARE those things.

Back to that video at the top. How DO you learn to play the flute? Not by “playing the flute” but starting small, doing experiments by practicing, learning and doing more and getting better, your repertoire expanding as you experiment. You DON’T “start playing the flute.”, you start small and build big gradually.

This is like with that AS-IS and TO-BE rot. No big bangs. They probably either won’t happen at all or won’t work. Instead experiment with a re-designed system on a small-scale, see what works, expand it rolling in more people or more types of work, always checking what is happening as changes are made and rolling back if it starts to back slide.

Experiment where it matters, in reality rather than on paper.

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2 Responses to How to do it

  1. Easy to be cynical about post-it notes, if you haven’t used them (or seen them used) effectively. These little bits of paper are a useful tool for managing work, for prioritizing, creating focus, getting small things completed, and most importantly for creating shared dialog—building community.

    I agree, a bunch of managers and executives in a closed room, drawing pictures on flip charts, and planning perfect future-states doesn’t move anything forward, but don’t confuse that with the power of a co-located team, without walls, using visual management to generate conversation, shared vision, and engagement.

    As to Lean (or Agile, or Scrum, etc.) training. Training, firstly, is the wrong word (training is for circus animals). Focus should be on education, engagement, exploration of ideas—and all in context of the people and the work being done. Such facilitation, using a thinking framework can be very helpful in shifting the status quo, one brick at a time.

    Be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater!


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Thanks Tobias!
      I’m not really having a go at post-its. To carry on the Monty Python references “He’s having a go at the flowers now!!”
      If that comes across then I’ve FAILED.
      Post-its are pretty innocuous. I have owned several thousand in my life, with no calamitous results. I am looking at a pack (pod?) right now. Those teeny ones that you think will be incredibly useful and never are as good as the middle sized square ones.
      Instead it’s the thinking that RESULTS in post-its being the only visible remains of an “improvement event”, that’s the target of my ire.

      Lean training. Anything training. I agree! See last paragraph on post “a curious periodical”, about 2 posts back.

      But I don’t believe there is such a thing as “lean”, just as there isn’t such a thing called “systems thinking” or “agile” or whatever. There’s only lean AS PRACTISED, or systems thinking AS PRACTISED. No platonic ideal exists of either of these abstract concepts that mundane reality can to be compared with. Theres just reality AS-IS.
      Cheers TP


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