Lean and social

October 2, 2011

Waste seems like a straightforward term, but lean thinking has given new meaning to the word. In lean vocabulary, anything that does not create value, slows one down, or does not contain potential for learning is waste. A thing or a document sitting around waiting to be used is waste. Making something that is not needed is waste. Unwanted movement is waste. Transportation is waste. Waiting is waste. Any extra processing steps are waste.

The concept of waste has lately been transferred from manufacturing to other practices such as product development. According to lean principles, when a development project is started, the goal is to complete it as rapidly as possible. In a sense, ongoing development projects are just like inventory sitting around in a factory. Design and prototypes are only valuable when (paying) customers are involved.

Eliminating waste is a fundamental lean principle. Thus three of the steps towards implementing lean development are learning to see waste, uncovering the sources and eliminating them.

We recently studied the product development methodology of a large multinational company. They have been very successful in the past, leading in most of the markets they have entered. But lately, many people have voiced concern that there have been unnecessary delays in getting new products to market. To find out why, we gathered input from managers and ecosystem partners.

A division into two main areas of concern developed: technology/process and social interaction. We asked people what percentage of the barriers to faster time-to-market might relate to the technology/process side and what percentage would be on the social interaction side. The answers were almost unanimous: over 75 percent of the reasons for slow product development were on the social interaction side. The results were alarming because in this organization almost all approaches to being more agile and to taking waste out of the system were historically on the technology/process side.

People are used to lean thinking when it comes to technology and processes but it is still very rare to look at taking waste out of communication. Many managers still trivialize the power of conversation. They think that social interaction issues are soft compared to the hard issues of technology and process.

We still don’t understand that work is communication: we live and work in a network of conversations. Being lean means understanding that conversations are never neutral. They always affect the quality and pace of the outcome. Communication either accelerates or slows down. Communication either creates value or creates waste. Communication can create energy and inspiration or take energy away and reduce inspiration.

The world around us is changing. The interactions in mass manufacturing were very different from the interactions in complex, dynamic, knowledge-based work. Many managers possess the skills that meet the challenges of static conditions. Those conditions are based on predictability and systems thinking, meaning that the crucial variables are known in advance. The main risk factor is then the accuracy of the predictions.

In a static environment, you know how each role fits within the larger system. You know how the processes work, and you don’t want deviations. You know what it takes to make the products and you don’t want people experimenting and making things up. You want everyone to do their part and not get in each other’s way. Roles and organizational units are separated from other roles and other units. You, as a manager, do the coordination and share the information necessary for each to make their planned contribution and nothing more.

In dynamic business conditions the management practices described above are not only unhelpful but cause damage and create waste rather than value.

If you cannot predict you have to invest in real-time learning and iterations instead of more predictions. Success is based on speed of learning and responsiveness. Responsiveness is not possible if you are many handshakes away from the things that you should respond to. Learning is then based, not on teaching materials, but on conversations linking interdependent people. The question is what the design of a valuable conversation is? We spend countless hours attending meetings and sending/answering emails, but the nature of those hours goes unexamined. Many people think that a conversation is inherently valuable. That is not the case. The challenge we face is to deepen our awareness of how conversations create either value or waste. The goal is not just to be more social.

The agile manifesto points out that individuals in interaction are more important than processes and tools. Working prototypes are more important than documentation. Customer collaboration is more important than contracts and most importantly responding to change is more important than following a plan. Creating value or waste is a result of how we interact.

We need to embrace change, unpredictability and complexity as inescapable constants in all product development. It is about being lean and social!


Thank you Craig Larman, Petri Haapio, Ari Tikka, Mickey Connolly, Vasco Duarte and Ken Schwaber


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