Tag Archives: lean

Lean and Sustainability

I love Lean thinking because it is a key tool for sustainability.
Reducing waste, doing more with less, focussing on value and Values, improving communication and collaboration, learning from observation and continuously improving our methods and increasing our knowledge. [1]

All of this is what we need to do on a broader scale in society.
The principles and the tools from the “lean toolbox” can be used in all parts of the greater community. Of course, every tool and technology can be used for multiple purposes. The tool itself has no moral a-priori goodness/badness. (A hammer can be used to build a house or to kill a neighbour.) The choice is ours how to use the tools – which is why we have to start with values.

The most convincing view on sustainability that I have encountered is called “Permaculture”. It is a philosophy based on the three core ethics: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. There is a lot written on the topic, my favourite is a book by one of the founders of the Permaculture movement, David Holmgren [1].

Permaculture ethics (Earth care, people care, fair share), surrounded by the 12 principles. [1]
Permaculture ethics (Earth care, people care, fair share), surrounded by the 12 principles. [1]
In short, the objective of permaculture is to build a society that can continue forever, preferably increasing natural and spiritual wealth over time. This is no small feat, considering how much of current civilization is built on destructive patterns and non-sustainable resource extraction.
There are technological hurdles, but also sociological and psychological challenges to move in this direction.

I believe that Lean methods can help us verbalize what we value and start moving in that direction. We can map the value stream in what we are doing and find ways of strengthening the value-adding activities.
Lean methods help us to identify practices and processes that are destructive and the lean methods help us to reduce the waste.

Maybe you wonder: “but who is the Customer, who is so central in Lean thinking?”
(The “customer” as an agent is used a lot in Lean methods to quantify what is the important output or value of a process.[3])
I believe that the customer is you.

It is you who have to feel deep in your heart what you want that your life should deliver.
I endorse the permaculture ethics of Earth Care (leave the environment better than when you came), People Care (help people grow and flourish) and Fair Share (share the surplus, don’t hoard), as guiding values. Does this activity improve the state of the Earth? Does it improve the connectedness and knowledge of the People? Does it distribute the accumulated wealth?

Viewing society and corporations through this lens helps us to develop products that improve the world. We can use all our creativity to invent new ways of working together to grow people instead of using them up as “human resources”. We can develop new profit sharing mechanisms that allow companies and organizations to flourish for longer and longer.

Let’s lean the world and build a sustainable civilization.


Published on 18 August 2014 – Overshoot Day [6].
Until today we have used up all resources that can be sustainably produced during 2014. Every day from now until the end of the year we are using up resources that leave the Earth a poorer place than when we came.
A sad, sad situation for Earth Care.

Of course it is hard. We have a car, even though we often go by bike to work. I burn plenty of gas to heat our house, even though I would like to grow the wood instead. I have conflict minerals in my mobile phone.
However, by looking at solutions and using lean tools, we can work together to find better solutions, one breath at a time. I do not know any better way. Do you?

Isn’t it ironic that the lean methodologies were developed by the world’s largest car maker Toyota?

Read more:
[1] Lean Thinking & The Machine that Changed the World – Womack and Jones
[2] Permaculture – Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren
[3] The Toyota Way – Jeffrey Liker
[4] Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture – Sepp Holzer
[5] Gaia’s Garden – Toby Hemenway
[6] Overshoot Day – link

Lake Baikal - a Unesco Natural Heritage.
Lake Baikal – a Unesco Natural Heritage.

Efficiency vs. Fairness – an interesting dilemma

Sometimes, there is a tension between the values of fairness vs. efficiency. It is a common theme in Dilbert, where well-intentioned company policy leads to something ridiculous in a particular situation. We all encounter it from time to time, when we struggle to strike the right balance between same-for-all and right-for-this-situation.

This is an aspect of the cultural dimension that Fons Trompenaars calls “Universalism/Particularism” (or What is more important, rules or relationships/the specifics of the situation?). I believe that each individual’s work culture to a large extent is based on the relative importance of values.

Some people value the rule and the principle of fairness more – and are willing to accept a negative outcome for some specific cases. Other people truly value the individual particular situation more – therefore they feel that rules are there to guide but not to stifle judgement and wisdom.

On a train ride this week, we hit into this dilemma when we took the 263 train (Beijing->Ulaan Baatar).  The 16 wagon train was almost empty. According to our wagon attendant, less than 30 passengers. This is supposedly typical for this season. The train is full in July, but the rest of the year there are plenty of empty berths. The lowest occupancy was last year in December when they drove once the whole way from Beijing to UB with only five passengers. More tourists do go the other way, but even in that direction it is quite empty in the train. Sometimes more personnel than passengers. This time, we were five passengers in our whole wagon.

Our wagon attendant explained that:  “The agreement between the governments mandated that they would always drive 15 sleeper wagons and one restaurant wagon, twice per week in the winter and three times in the summer. And since it is an international agreement – it is important to be fair and honor the agreement.”

Lifting the wagons to change the boogies.
Lifting the wagons to change the boogies.

We spent 4 hours to change boogies (wheelsets) on all 15 sleeping wagons at the border crossing between China and Mongolia. We could have used one or two wagons, and be finished in 30 minutes.

The reason for changing wheelsets is due to the rail gauge – the distance between the two rails. The railway connection between Ulaan Baatar was built in 1956, during a time when the Soviet Union had a strong presence in Mongolia. Therefore, the train tracks in Mongolia follow the Russian standard, which is wider than the Chinese standard. It was impressive and weird to see the wagons lifted up and the boogies rolled away to be replaced with a slightly different width. This boogie dance went on for hours, in the middle of the night – and we were waiting for our passports to be back from the Chinese border police. It was indeed a relief when the adjustments were completed, the passports retrieved and we could glide away into the Mongolian night to cross the Gobi Desert.

 DSC03002 DSC03003 It is an amazing waste of time and energy to do this boogie-changing. Especially for all the wagons that are almost empty. I was crying deep inside my passionate Lean-heart to see all these people doing useless work with excellent execution. There are so many important value-adding jobs out there!

Do you encounter dilemma’s of fairness vs efficiency in your job?

How do you deal with the dilemma of fairness vs efficiency in your organization?

What legends do you have about heroes in the past who broke corporate guidelines to do the right thing?

Delivering Happiness – Book and Idea review

I have never purchased shoes online. Nevertheless, this book written by Zappos Inc CEO and co-founder Tony Hsieh is immensly intriguing and inspiring. “Delivering Happiness” is the current motto/slogan/vision of the maildrop shoebox company.

Tony describes his life journey from worm-farm primary school backyard entrepreneur via Harvard to startup ventures and the Zappos adventure. He writes in a very funny and personal way about his peculiar experiences and it seems like it could have been me, in a positive way. (Of course on a smaller scale.) It is this personal connection that drives the book and builds momentum and credibility for Tony’s message that happiness is a perfectly valid business and life goal!
Of course, the next step is to build on the science of positive psychology and happiness to ensure that we create some pleasure/profits, more passion and clear picture of the purpose.

It is the first time that I read a book like this, where the author is a successful entrepreneur. Many other books about “authentic leadership” and positive messaging are based on moral arguments and ideology, written by armchair CEOs. This book is much more believable, because Zappos is there to prove that it actually works.

The book is written from a very American perspective, so I look forward to hearing the comments of my colleagues here in China how they experience the message and ideas in the book. Maybe it helps that Tony Hsieh is an American-born Chinese…

I hope that Mao Yun soon will write a book about creating and running Alibaba and Taobao, the Chinese equivalent to Amazon+Ebay+Zappos+Paypal+DealXtreme. I use Taobao every week, and to me it delivers happiness. I can only guess that Mao Yun follows a similar philosophy…

The Lean Startup – Idea and book review

Seldom a bok is really worth reading in one sitting, but this time I was captivated and had enough time on a long flight to dig in cover to cover. Eric Ries tells a compelling story of running startups according to a structured methodology, based on Lean thinking and the philosophy of the Toyota Production System.

As I have experienced lean both in the automotive industry flavor and the software style called agile, I could identify with many of the situations and observations in the case studies in the book. However, this is the first time I see someone applying the principles to the organizationally uncertain environment of a startup. And Ries is very convincing.

In the last years, starting a greenfield R&D operation, I have encountered countless situations where the conventional metrics of success seem counterproductive and odd. In Lean Startup, some of these situations are included as examples of dilemmae facing the entrepreneur. I have felt oddly dissatisfied with our output, since I have had no tools to measure the progress, only admitting to myself that the positive picture of my department is more based on faith than on facts.

Ries also gives me words to formulate how the corporate standardized waterfall model of product development is disfunctional in a quickly changing environment. The obvious Build-Measure-Learn-cycle is now one year, instead of possibly a month or a week. We still operate with the assumption that the customers can explicitly state exactly what they want and that it is our job to make the optimal product matching these requirements. I will come back in another post why this is a flawed starting point.

The book is an easy read, and the key points come across clearly and vividly. The first-hand experience of Ries, and the way he shares his own failures with wit and self-depreciation add to the credibility to the story. The weakest part of the book is when Ries proclaims himself as the philosophical leader of a new industrial thinking revolution, which is probably an exaggeration.

Magnus Enarsson, thank you for pointing this book. It is inspiring and I am convinced that we will develop ways to work smarter!

Lean Solutions – Idea and book review

Womack and Jones are back with another book on Lean Thinking. They changed the world when they published the book “The Machine that Changed the World” about lean production and the Toyota Production System. Also their “Lean Thinking” was a masterpiece on how to apply the same principles in other businesses. Of course my expectations were high when I grabbed a volume of “Lean Solutions”…

The book is ok.
What is good is that they introduce a way to talk about consumer/provider relationships and how to analyze the hidden costs of consumption. They take everyday frustrations and convert them into suggestions for how to change the value offering to make the customer more satisfied at a lower cost.
When we buy something, like a car or a computer, it is not the ownership that makes us happy, but the enabling function. Having this thing enables me to do things that I like.
In a time of wealth and abundance, many people have more than enough things and too little time.

The main points of the book are old truisms: Capital goods cost time and energy once we have them, in terms of maintenance and services. A house is a hobby, a sailing boat is a drain.
And yes, it is crucial to look at the whole purchasing experience – make it easy to buy and I will buy more. That is a key insight in the last fifty years of retailing and is well shown in the iPhone AppStore. There is already a sea of research and examples that are not referred to in this book.

Another weak point of the book is that it feels less solid than the previous Womack&Jones’es. There are two real world examples, from Tesco and a car repair shop, but most of it is anecdotical.

If you have a choice – go for “Lean Thinking” instead.

Lean Software Development – Book and Idea Review

Lean Software Development – an Agile Toolkit. What a great title for a book, combining two of the hottest buzz words of the last five years!

An enjoyable book, with a nice trike on the front page.

And this book delivers what it promises. It is a great book that aligns the Lean philosophy that was developed mainly at Toyota with the Agile/Scrum ideas. It demonstrates the remarkable overlap between these two paradigms and suggests how to translate the insights and experiences from lean product development into the software development domain. The book is easy reading with numerous to-the-point examples from real-world projects, both from hard-product development and software development. Mary and Tom are shooting sharp at some holy cows of project management like detailed up-front value engineering and early requirement freeze. It is entertaining and enlightening!

A couple of years ago I had the fortunate opportunity to visit Toyota in Japan and to spend some time with Toyota product development engineers to discuss how to use Lean outside the factory. Most of their suggestions come back in this book, ranging from iterative design and empowered teams based on reliable management to concurrent engineering. Furthermore, they agree on the point that it is hard work to get it right and to take on the responsibility. The committment is for quality, not for comfort.

One diffuculty that I see is that concepts like “Lean” and “Agile” describe the outcome/result of working in a smart way. In some situations it is used as a synonym for “Good”.  Anything that is good for the product development process or improves customer percieved quality with minimal effort is called “Lean/Agile”. I am worried about this, because it dilutes the methodologies and makes it hard to compare. In my opinion it would be  more helpful to differentiate more clearly and be open about when it is useful to use Lean/Agile concepts and when not.


Today and Tomorrow – book and idea review

A book full of surprises. The core of the Lean Production philosophy is outlined in this 80 years old volume: Flow of material, reduction of buffers, continuous training of  personnel to move from doing to supervising and improving the process… All of it is described in this visionary work by Henry Ford. The reason I got this book to read was that it was referenced heavily by Taiichi Ohno in his book on the Toyota Production System.

today and tomorrow
Latest edition of the classic book.

The questions that pop to my head when reading this  is: Why was this forgotten? Why is it not more widespread? Why did I not experience this when working with Ford people at VoloCars? Why did it work for Ford in the 20’s but not in the 90’s?

My hypothesis is that it is hard to run companies this way. It puts very high requirements on managers to be able to give latitude and freedom to the workforce, to build trust and honesty. It is hard to pursue the ideals of lean, to sceptically look at yourself and admit that also you need to improve the way you work.

It is easy to point a finger at someone else and know better how they should improve their processes, but very, very hard to look at yourself. Especially in the office environment, we are surrounded with artefacts that identify our personality with the job, so any attack on the latter is felt as an attack on the ego.

Being a project manager, I understand fully why I sometimes order things late, but I have very little understanding or compassion with the purchasing department who is consistently slow in their processing of the order. I guess you recognize this from your organization’s favourite complaint department?

But the challenge I see is to be humble and open towards all the stakeholders and listen carefully to what they say. After all, the most effective starting  point to drive an improvement is the center of your circle of influence – yourself.

Even though I could/should start resoutely Today,  I conclude with allowing myself to think that Tomorrow is also good enough…

Visual Project Control and Motivation

One of my favorite tools of “Lean” is visual control. The idea is that visual information on the wall next to the workplace communicates better than intranet pages or databases.

Projects Wall - Objectives, Status and What to do Next

For each project I run, I have a whiteboard of roughly 1 square meter per project, with the most important information, updated at least weekly. I include: project objectives, deliverables, team members, status, decision log and maybe most important: What are we working on now?

At least half of the project team is located in the same room, so they will invariably see what is going on in the project.

Typically, we have pulse meetings once or twice a week, to get alignment on what we are doing and who is doing what.

For me, this spices up my motivation.
Once in a while there are slow days, when the brain goes on half speed and the weather outside looks alluring. Then it is tempting to log on to [Your Favorite Social Network Site] and just click around. Or read another article about PyUnit, or a long email about a policy document change from HR.
But then I glance at the project wall and I see my name on a task, I am back in focus again.

I think that all tools that remind us about what we should be doing are useful.
And, by aligning weekly with the rest of the team, we can scrap some activities that we actually should not be doing, at least not now.

It is also more fun to finish tasks that have been self-assigned than diffusely delegated!