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Digital Lean- Are we doomed to repeat the sins of the past?

When I was asked to help MAEX Partners in Germany develop a digital readiness assessment my first thought was “why me”. As many of you know I am not a technological pioneer or even very technologically capable. However, what I learned during a recent industry tour is that the digital transformation is NOT about technology and that many organizations are making the same mistake that was, and is, still being made with lean transformation—there is no clarity of the vision and it’s about the tools. Making matters worse is that there is no benchmark or obvious example to emulate. Many of us had Toyota as a guiding light for lean. I couldn’t find an obvious “Toyota” of digital transformation.

Kevin Bates from MAEX Partners and I recently spent time with some senior executives of fortune 500 companies, people close to Toyota, and with Steven Spears at MIT. What we discovered, with one outstanding exception, is that companies and consultants alike have a very difficult time articulating the vision of a digital transformation. The vision is often described in tools or the internet-of-things. Some companies I know think they are on the digital journey simply because they gave the employees I-Pads, smart robots, or are using Google glass. Sounds all too uncomfortably familiar “I’m doing Five S and Kaizen workshops so I’m on the lean journey”. Compounding the issue is that the vision is often very simply only about where and how to apply digital tools, not about purpose.

I did further research and, although not a completely comprehensive search, what I found was further disturbing. Years ago there was a dispute between Six Sigma and lean as “business initiatives”. That seem to be resolved (not really) by combining the 2 into Lean Six Sigma. Often lean was explained as an addition to Six Sigma. I have no interest into getting into that debate. It seems to have resolved itself. However, here we go again only this time it’s “digital lean” and “digital is in addition to lean”. It’s everywhere and in every instance I found there was no clarity to what that means and worse, what is the approach. There is now even a trademarked LeanDigital™. I heard and read often “why bother identifying the vision and benefits, the digital transformation is coming anyway and can’t be stopped”. Did anybody check to see if we are ready? There are even suggestions that you go lean and then go digital or digital is needed to give lean a boost. Lots of proclamations but no answers. This could become irritating quickly.

Many years ago Jamie Flinchbaugh and I started the Lean Learning Center. The expressed purpose of the Center was to get people and organizations to understand that lean is not about tools, it’s about principles, the thinking behind lean. Somewhat evolutionary thinking at the time but now widely accepted and adopted. It’s now my belief that the digital transformation requires the same type of evolutionary thinking—it’s not technology, it’s the principles. Principles are about thinking. Tools/technology are about execution and are simply the enablers to manifest the thinking. Lean is a human system, not a tools system. Digital is a human system and not a technology system. Understanding digital as a human system and understanding the principles (purpose) will drive the application of the right tool/technology and strangely enough that tool might NOT be a digital tool even in this digital world. This is not being discussed and without this discussion the digital transformation could easily follow the path of so many failed lean transformations.

The following is my first attempt at what I see as digital principles in no order of priority. Maybe too many, maybe not enough. I’m sure I’ll be challenged but I welcome the challenge. I firmly believe that the lean community, not the technology community, is best suited to lead this discussion.

  • Data Wisdom-It’s not about big data; it’s about interpreting the data. A CEO at one company I visited gave me a great example. He has or can get all the same data as Warren Buffet but Warren Buffet can interpret the data and make better decisions. Professor Susan Athey of Stanford Graduate School of Business said “You need to be able to experiment, try things-always applying business logic and leadership in combination with data insights”.
  • Simple and Specific Connectivity is King. Take a hard look at the cause of many of the problems and failures in an organization and you will find it’s because of failed connections. There are so many ways today to connect people to people and information to people but when given a menu of options you can’t test for the simplest nor can you guarantee the connection. There is less “digital risk” with simple and specific connections.
  • Ecosystem Lean-Those that change outside the “4 walls” will be the best. Link and connect the entire value chain, and more importantly, the information people need for rapid, effective and local decision making including the feedback loop.
  • Digital Lean-Digital is not new lean thinking, it’s more efficient lean thinking. Using an andon “app” instead of an andon cord. Lean is the circulatory system for digital.
  • Digital Empowerment-Providing the Employees the complete solution behind the scenes before it’s needed to solve their own problems.
  • Resource Power-A culture of information at the right place, at the right time, to the right people. It’s the energy, the fuel, for a culture of innovation. I recently learned that Toyota has lineside 3D printers so employees can test their ideas (scientific experimentation) and broadly communicate successful lineside innovations.
  • How do you know?-I personally believe that there is no more important question to ask than “how do you know”. How do you know; what to do? if it’s done? who should do it? if you have right information? Was it done correctly? When you are done? What are you going to do today? Where to get the information? What’s needed?, etc. etc.
  • Reduce the burden-The ever increasing demand for data and information internally or externally is overburdening those who have to provide the information/data. For obvious reasons the burden has to removed or minimized. Focus as much on the suppliers as the customers in every customer/supplier relationship.

My contention is that the vision of a successful digital transformation should be based on these aforementioned principles. This is likely not be a completely comprehensive set of principles and certainly requires more vetting but I firmly believe that it’s the lean community’s opportunity, and frankly responsibility, to partner with the digital community to get this right. Digital is easy, readiness is the challenge. Sometime ago I questioned where lean was going. Maybe this is it?

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