July 24, 2014

Lean principles for knowledge workers (and everyone else)

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If you haven’t seen it, there is an article on the Harvard Business Review entitled “Lean Knowledge Work” by Bradley R. Staats and David M. Upton.  I encourage you to go and read it, as I think it is one of the more important pieces examining the applicability of Lean concepts to areas other than manufacturing.

The article, in my mind, focuses on the reasons why organizations who commit to Lean end up succeeding.  That is, they begin to understand that addressing the mura (unevenness of operations) and muri (overburdening of people and resources) in the workplace as the root cause of muda (waste and inefficiency).

I have written about mura and muri both here (“The connection: Mura, Muri and Muda”) and on Christian Paulsen’s blog (“Mura and Muri – so critical and so forgotten”).  If you read those posts, or my comments at the end of the Staats and Upton article, you’ll see that I believe that only through an understanding of how mura and muri infect the workplace can improvement truly begin.

It’s like a root cause analysis to me:

  • We are underperforming, because…
  • Our operations have a lot of inefficiency to them, because….
  • We operate with constant boom & bust cycles that puts a lot of strain and both man and machine just to keep up, because…..
  • We expect “good” people to be able to handle the strain, and the cream will rise to the top, because…..
  • We’ve never bothered to truly understand the individual motivations of our workforce and treat them like capital investments, instead of just labor costs, because…..
  • It’s most important to make monthly and quarterly numbers, even if it means long-term strife and hardship at all levels of the company, because….
  • We believe the most important thing in business is the business itself, and not the people who create and manage the value we provide

And that line of reasoning is exactly that which leads us to such a pitiful state in most organizations.  Mura and muri are the norm, and we judge and reward people with bonuses and promotions and plaques of recognition not for their ability to prevent the problem, but on their toughness and resiliency and ability to walk through it, even when it’s thigh-high.

While that kind of grit and determination are admirable, you have to ask, “are they necessary?”  If you’re rewarding grit and determination, isn’t that just a sign that people are working too hard on problems that shouldn’t exist in the first place, and mura and muri are everywhere?

Of course it is, and the universal applicability of Lean to nearly all walks of life has to do with the desire to eliminate not just waste, but traditional, “this is the way we’ve always done it” modes of working, managing and motivating others that cause nothing but frustration, aggravation, depression and resignation amongst the workforce.

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  • Tony Bruce

    404 on the “The connection: Mura, Muri and Muda” link.

    • http://myflexiblepencil.com/about_davidk/ David M. Kasprzak

      Egads! Thanks for pointing that out. It should now be fixed.