Regularly, people ask me how Lean can help in improving a company’s functional support departments. In many cases organizations already have begun introducing Lean thinking in these functions and are teams progressing with their 5S efforts, setting up team performance boards and introducing daily huddles around these, and initiating improvement teams. Well done! But I’m always left with a feeling that these companies are missing the point of becoming a truly Lean organization. Doesn’t Lean start with customer value? And the value stream that provides this value? Plus the teams that work in the value stream making it all happen? I think we should stop applying Lean in this way to these support functions, and that we should go back to the basics: customer value, value stream and autonomous teams!
It might be somewhat direct (but OK, us Dutch apparently are known for this character trait…), but support functions provide no customer value from a Lean perspective. They play no role in the value stream that actually provides value to the customer. The value add is being provided by those teams (and their means) working in that value stream. In a Lean organization everything is focused on providing value to the customer and thus on the corresponding value stream. All other is waste; possibly (still) required, but still, waste.
Applying Lean principles to the supporting functions, therefore, looks somewhat like an attempt to execute that what is already waste only with a new Lean look-and-feel. Lean Finance, Lean HRM, Lean Maintenance, … Hm, I have my own thoughts about this. I always tend to get visions of “re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” when discussing these type of “Lean applications”. Is Lean really about making support functions Lean? In my view, discussions should better focus on the role supportive functions need to play within the larger picture of providing customer value through the value stream and the continual improvement thereof.
A Real-Life Example
At a certain moment, as a consequence of increased cost pressures, an organization decided that the central planning department had to downsize their schedulers, and in particularly those working in the weekends during the weekend production shifts. The central planning manager, to whom these schedulers reported, got the assignment. At the same time, the organization was already engaged in a longer-lasting Lean effort, which was, however, still primarily focused on the production departments. The planning manager was a self-starting guy, and quickly understood what this Lean stuff was about and swiftly proceeded with formalizing, documenting and visualizing the standard work of the schedulers. This did not only contribute to his own ambitions of being at the forefront of becoming Lean in his organization, it also helped in training the weekend production shifts so that they could take scheduling decisions on their own when his schedulers would not be there anymore in the near future. And so it happened…
When after a while the production schedulers indeed were not available anymore to the weekend shifts, the planning manager was very satisfied that he had accomplished the task given to him by his manager. He then happily continued his Lean efforts in his department. But then he was asked the question, that if he could pull this off for the weekend shifts, why he couldn’t also make the same decision for the rest of the shifts during the week. A good question I think…
The central planning manager in the case above, probably unconsciously, did a very interesting thing: he formalized the aspect knowledge on planning and scheduling (including the knowledge on how to react to certain deviations), documented and visualized it, and transferred it (by training, shadow management and then coaching) to the operational teams that were active in the value stream. In fact, the supportive planning function had unconsciously increased the autonomy of the teams active in the value stream on the aspect of planning and scheduling. Through this increased autonomy, the flexibility, speed and decisiveness of operational teams is enlarged. Decisions that earlier had to be escalated and taken at higher organizational levels were now being taken at the shop floor without running the risk of a loss in effectiveness.
The example is a nice illustration of what I feel the role of supportive functions should be in a truly Lean organization: creating increased autonomy in the teams that are active in the core value stream of the organization, by jointly creating aspect knowledge, formalizing this and integrating it into the visual working procedures of the teams and building their skills and confidence in taking over responsibility for also that additional aspect of their jobs. Together with a well-functioning continual improvement process (including possible escalation), this should lead to continuously better aspect knowledge available as low as possible in the organization.
So whenever you’re tempted to start “Leaning” your support departments, please think again and ask yourself the question whether your efforts will only make your support process somewhat more effective and efficient, or that you will be really making a significant contribution to customer value through better equipped teams in the operation. I look forward hearing from you!