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KM & Lean

April 17, 2007

A few days ago someone on ActKM said that someone in their organisation had decided that LEAN techniques could be applied outside a manufacturing environment. I posted a reply and Patrick suggested it was worth sharing on this blog. So here it is:

You may be about to enter a difficult period ….

LEAN, 6 Sigma etc. and a range of methods developed within the manufacturing functions, or primarily manufactory businesses port badly to the service section. One of the main reasons for this is that manufacturing is a closed system, in which the purpose is to move towards an optimised equilibrium state. In other words to focus on efficiency, stripping away superfluous functionality.

Now this is all well and good where the context is stable, and the number of transactions can be limited and engineered/designed with some reliability. The issue you have is that areas such as health are open systems, with constantly shifting contexts. In these environments it is better to focus on effectiveness, and to ensure you maintain some degree of inefficiency so the system as a whole has adaptive capacity. We have seem examples of downsizing, following from exercises such as LEAN, which have in effect removed key human knowledge assets and capabilities.

Some functions which have evolved over many years (for example Matron’s in hospitals) are roles that have arisen from evolutionary processes (strange attractors in complexity terms). They are intimately bound up in a history that can only be partially known and are dispensed with at considerable cost (look at issues over super-bugs in hospitals if you want one consequence of over enthusiastic application of manufacturing techniques in an inappropriate context.

My advice to you, is to seek to bound the practice. Get some agreement up front that LEAN techniques will only be applied to aspects of the service which can be tightly defined and where there is not significant levels of human interaction which changes over time. It would be senseless to resist an optimisation process for highly structured repeating aspects of an organisation’s work, where there is a stable context. It would be equally absurd to apply such a process in dynamic changing environments. There are an increasing range of knowledge management methods and tools designed for unstructured environments (not as many as structured regrettably). However It departments, consultants and executives who have lived their lives isolated from front line customer interaction tend to like a world which is ordered,. tidy and above all neat. They will support such initiatives to reduce mess and see loss of jobs as a normal part of the making organisations more competitive. unfortunately mess is a part of live, and attempts to restrict it tend to weaken diversity and capability.

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