Lean thinking at the cliff’s edge


Lean thinkers, the first question is what can we do to create psychological safety for people affected so that they feel enabled to be cautious and break the chain of transmission? But a second crisis is looming that we, lean thinkers, are better placed to see than most. The debate about how much lockdown is too little or too much is moot – the virus is spreading (actually, probably had been spreading before we realized it was).

The lockdowns, however, will have consequences on world supply chains – starting with critical medical supplies. I know from the gemba how difficult it is to keep all respirators fully functional in a hospital in normal times, and they are already using short use operating theatre respirators for longer use in wards. Supply chains will be falling over in unexpected ways and this will affect us all.

As we know, executives are prone to knee-jerk reactions that make matters worse. They will either force the system to replenish safety stocks precisely when they shouldn’t, or see it as an opportunity to move supply chains to “protect” them from this type of crisis in the future.

As we also know, locally, in a panic, people will be snowed under daily evolving detailed instructions as well as hampered by the usual corporate rules designed to stop them from doing anything other than follow the process. In the current situation this is likely to lead to both catastrophic shortages and dispirited teams – also fighting their own battles at home.

As lean thinkers, I feel we can ponder three interventions, wherever we are, whatever we do:

  1. What can we do to create a psychological safe space for people who are either directly affected by COVID19 or fear they are? Unless you’re a health professional, there’s little you can do about medical conditions. As individuals, we can however be sensible in finding a balance between breaking the contagion chains and not ostracizing or isolating people who need help – for human beings isolation is tantamount to physical pain. Psychological safety will quickly become an issue as physical safety is right now.
  2. How can we argue, plead, beg with executives to be gentle and caring of supply chains and not generate further mura, muri and muda? We’re seen how executive orders have hit large companies in random fashion with travel bans, gathering bans, confinement policies and the like – there is no right or wrong answer there – but supply chains will have to be serviced or the backlash on society risks being way worse than we currently envisage. We have been trained for this, we understand the theory of supply-chain whiplash and the fact that one missing component is enough to stop assembly and although I understand this feels premature today, decisions are being taken today that will have chaotic impacts tomorrow.
  3. Where can we support team autonomy? Teams on the ground will have smart ideas about how to keep things running if they are allowed to go around the system. Systems are mostly in place for cost optimization and control and that horse has very definitely left the barn. Teams will need support when they intend to bend the rules to solve their local problems and I believe we can help, if only in supporting the idea that it’s okay to challenge rules.

Lean thinking was not invented for good times. Granted, the current crisis is catastrophic in its scary personal nature – none of us has any immunity to this new virus – and in the societal shockwave that comes in its wake as we see stock markets collapse around the world. Still, this is what lean thinking is for: understand the challenges, don’t make things worse, react smartly, study your reactions to improve your response. No one is ready for what is coming, no one is expected to be. But we’ve been better trained than most, so we can put on our lean thinking hats and do what we must to influence, argue, orient. Sometimes, even the smallest step counts in moving events in different directions. This is the upside of chaos: small changes can have large consequences for the better as well.Capture d’écran 2020-03-30 à 19.50.27

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