Sunday, June 2, 2013

How Lean is a "Lean Start-up"?

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So how “lean” is a lean start-up? What an intriguing; yet, difficult question to answer- there are so many tangents of this in my opinion. For me I suppose it has a lot to do with how you or your organization defines Lean itself. It’s amazing when I ask this question across various industry’s the answers I get that are so far away from the true essence of Lean, no wonder its only a short-term “project” for many- start up or not. I think this within itself drives the thinking of an organization and how they define it and see it, especially if they are on the journey, or have just begun. If I were to look at an organization I might say “you are not Lean”, but what does that mean to them? It’s all in the eye of the beholder, right? Lean is a nebulous thing in their minds or a destination they are trying to reach if not explained correctly as to why they are doing it. Again goes back to how we define it. Many ask me how do I define it personally- it’s simple for me really – Lean is about adding value from order to customer through developing people and their ability to see non value added actions within that entire process regardless of what you provide to your customer (I’m not always describing manufacturing). So in short- Lean is about people and their development/alignment, at least that is what I was taught. The beauty of that is that the outcome is seeing people grow individually which supports the growth of the entire organization across all function areas vertically and horizontally.
My personal experience with start up’s are priceless lessons because I got to start up the first Toyota plant in North America. Was the start up phase Lean? I will say absolutely not! It was that way on purpose, our trainers knew what they were doing when they “padded” our workforce in the beginning. It was called opportunity! We LEArNed through countless hours of looking at processes with our trainers and leaders looking for opportunities to improve the standard against a current state. At the time we didn’t have a clue what Lean was, we just knew we had to meet certain expectations and the accountability for that was high! Its amazing when you remove the labels and stigma of something that is so hindering in ways how you can actually see much more clearly the essence of raw discipline. I can remember within the first 6 months of my time we went from 30 people in our group when I hired, to 18. Were we working harder? No! Were we working smarter? Absolutely! Were we learning and being developed? Yes! We didn’t see this as a negative, it was a reward for our ability to “think” and be empowered to improve it again. Everyone can do this, there isn’t a special decoder ring in a cracker jack box that made us that special, it was the ability of an organization to respect their people and “grow them”. I was a true example of a “home-grown” leader at Toyota.
They developed us and conditioned us to always ask questions based on standards to current state, that pure essence kept us perpetuating the thinking until it became the “norm”. I reflect back now and realize it was all really simple when you have leaders aligned with expectations, discipline and accountability that were first and foremost. It wasn’t Lean, it was our JOB! Imagine that concept! It wasn’t a choice, option or convenience thing, it was how we did business everyday, we all lived it because it was who we were. The infamous words we all know–WE ARE MARSHALL!! Well “WE ARE TOYOTA”, was something we all took pride in, there was a spirit of being part of something only the ones there could truly grasp- we were special because they made ordinary people do extraordinary things just by listening, leading and learning at our process. We “leaned” out ourselves and in time we did it with less and less guidance as our trainers made their way back to their own jobs in Japan. This was the goal all along, they were just the conduit to make it all happen. It’s truly amazing how they created this culture with people just by focusing on how we thought about gaps. It wasn’t rocket science, but some see it that way unfortunately.
So when I look at organization’s today I see a bit different situation than our “greenfield” but I never let that be an excuse for them to say, well “you had it easier. I didn’t always consider “greenfield” being such a dream since I lived it, I guess the grass isn’t always greener as they say—literally :) . Current organizations have the same gift we had at Toyota and that is opportunity. I guarantee if you look at value streams within your business you will see the same “padding” we had starting up. Every place I go has a choice to recognize the gift there in front of them, it’s theirs to decide upon how they open that gift. The reason I believe no one comments or connects well with the “lean start-up” conversation is because they don’t want to admit they don’t have the discipline to be accountable for something really simple when it comes down to it. When you lower the water the rocks there are about results versus process; most organizations are so result oriented that they won’t sacrifice an ounce of it for the process of developing people and taking the time to be at the gemba. One lesson my trainer always said that was a “secret” — If you focus on process and people, results are your outcome. Many struggle with that analogy and aren’t willing to give it a try in fear some “number” will suffer so it becomes a convenience mentality which never sustains. I truly believe Lean is opportunity and you make that as robust and you can through development of knowledge of your people. If your definition of Lean is- Less Employees Are Needed, then I will just say you might as well stick a fork in it before it gets started- it’s not going to sustain and your people will just “exist” to get your results and they become numb to the endless work-around’s it takes to “get it done”.
So maybe the question isn’t how Lean is your Lean start up, but perhaps how valuable are your people and their ability to recognize the order to customer value stream and the non value added aspects in between. As they said in the movie “Field of Dreams”- “If you build it they will come”. I tend to think- If you develop them results will follow!
Until next time,
Tracey Richardson

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