Interview with Daniel T. Jones
Daniel T. Jones is the founder and chairman of the Lean Enterprise Academy in the U.K., a senior advisor to the Lean Enterprise Institute, management thought leader, and mentor on applying lean process thinking to every type of business. He's also one of the authors of one of our recommended Business Process Management books, 'Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Organization' written by himself and James P. Womack. We caught up with Jones to ask him about the use of Lean today and how it differs from when he wrote Lean Thinking.
How would you explain Lean to someone who doesn’t know what it is or who might need a reminder?
Well there are many ways of describing Lean, but one of the most profound ways is probably that lean is a way of engaging literally everyone in the organisation to improve how they work, how they work with their colleagues and and how they create value for the customers, rather than wasting their time doing unnecessary things the way people used to do them in the past. Doing more with less basically.
Did the companies you detailed in your book continue along the upward path they were on and continue to use Lean well?
Lean has become pretty widespread now, pretty much every company has some kind of Lean programme with varying degrees of understanding of what Lean really is. Companies rarely march on a steady upward path without any hiccups. If they have good, strong, consistent management that understands Lean and really drives it that obviously helps. There are many other companies that have made some progress, slipped back a bit, scratched their heads and asked why this isn’t delivering what they expected, changed their consultants, some of them dug deeper to understand that this is about developing people and skills rather than telling people different ways of doing things. So there are no questions that there are examples in pretty well every sector now, in most countries of the world that are now achieving superior performance through Lean, but it’s a two steps forward one step backwards kind of world. And you think you know Lean when you first start and in fact you’re just scratching the surface because there’s always a lot more to learn.
Since the book came out, have you seen the digital/online revolution affect the use of Lean? It shouldn't affect the principles, but has it caused any distraction or diversion or had any interesting impacts?
I think Lean has had a big impact in traditional sectors; manufacturing, distribution, retail, engineering, production, utilities, financial services and so on, but what has begun to happen is that people have tried to use Lean and agile techniques for improving software development and making IT programmes a lot more useful to their users both for end customers and the internal customer, there’s been a big Lean in IT movement.
There's also been a big Lean Startup movement which is using the same lean principles derived from Toyota to improve the success rate of early start-ups and that’s very very popular in California, Eric Reis wrote a book that's been very successful called 'Lean Startup'.
On the other hand, all of the major electronic companies that you can think of from Google to Amazon, to Ebay to Apple have all at one time or another been using Lean, either in organising product development and engineering in Apple, in streamlining distribution systems in Amazon for instance, in managing products at places like Ebay. So actually Lean has penetrated way beyond the shop floor into what is traditionally called 'Knowledge Work'.
Certainly every industry faces potentially disruptive threats but every industry started small, what's happening in the digital world is that companies that are successful, are growing extraordinarily rapidly into very big companies that very quickly suffer all the same organisation problems that every other big company faces and when they get to that point they usually reach for Lean; because they can’t talk to you anymore, the functions don’t talk to each other, it becomes global and projects get cancelled and you get all the waste at the top of the organisation, and they're trying to manage that, so Lean is absolutely still relevant in the digital age and it’s been taken on by new generations of gurus who are pioneering it in things like startups and IT and software development.
Have you seen an increase in Lean in services industries?
Yes absolutely. First of all, manufacturing and distribution companies started doing it in the back office and then they started doing it in engineering and product development. Then, banks and insurance companies started using it in their transaction processing and back office and all the rest of it. Call centres used it for problem solving points of contact with the customer, so there's been an awful lot of work in service industries but I think digital and IT takes that one step further because it makes the project management kind of work in engineering, and with software development for interactions and ways of serving the customer through digital. But this goes way back. An early company I worked with many years ago, Tesco, we helped them use Toyota techniques to pioneer a rapid response distribution system to replenish their stores that enabled them to do home shopping right first time. So they’ve been doing home shopping and they’ve been analysing customer club card data and so on for a very long time, and doing many other things that Amazon is now also doing. So you know these things have long history and digital has been around for a lot longer than people remember. It’s just now sort of reaching everybody.
What is it like to see Lean implemented in a company that maybe had no understanding of it before you worked with them?
I've walked through dozens and dozens of companies ranging from Victorian foundries, I can only describe them like that, in China, to high tech companies that have made high tech versions of traditional manufacturing or traditional engineering with all the waste that's involved and when I walk through those factories I just see huge huge opportunities for waste. But what I’m actually looking at is the manager who’s walking with me, to see what he sees. Because if he doesn’t see the waste, then my job is to wake him up to seeing the waste and seeing the potential that’s just lying around everywhere. And you can see that in production and distribution, you can see it a bit in the office, you can’t see it very clearly in engineering and you certainly can’t see it clearly in digital. So it’s somewhat more subtle to tease out the waste and the opportunities in those environments but it can be done.
Once you’ve brought that to consciousness and once you’ve got a team to pick a process and map it and understand where all the wastes are it’s an infection. It's an infection that you begin to see the world differently and if you’ve got the right support and encouragement and if you do it with a bit of help from somebody who’s done it before it can absolutely change an organisation.
What I find most rewarding is when I walk around an organisation that's been doing Lean for several years and I ask people on the frontline, “Would you like to go back to how it was before you did Lean?” and they all say, “Lean has changed my life, I absolutely would not want to go back.” That’s the biggest reward you could possibly have. I’m in the business of planting seeds and watering them and some of them grow and some of them don't and you never know which ones are going to. So when they do it's great because all I need is a rate buster to demonstrate the potential in every industry that will force everybody else to follow suit.
So you can't walk into an organisation and know that they'll take it on? You can't spot the seeds that will grow?
What you can spot is where people's heads are. You can certainly walk out of a factory or an office and say, “This guy really gets it, I think he’s going to go far.” but then there’s all kinds of accidents that happen; they get promoted, they get moved somewhere else, a new boss comes in and says “Oh we’ve done that somewhere else, I don’t want to do that,” all kind of accidents will distract them along the way. When I walk out of a factory visit and walk around a shop floor with a manager I have a very good understanding of whether they're potentially going to get it, whether they're going to lead it or whether they still thinks this is something they're going to get experts to do for them, “to people”, because that doesn’t work.
What would you say is the biggest issue facing companies regards staying competitive today?
Digital is one, it allows us to have a real two way dialogue to know our customers, to know exactly how they behave and what their wants are and to actually have a two way dialogue, rather than designing what we think they want and then spending a lot of money forcing them to buy what we’ve produced. So, I think front end, the whole customer focus end is enabled by digital and will determine those companies that are going to be led by really understanding their customers and those that are simply going to carry on trying to produce what they’ve done in the past.
Have you seen a lot of use of Lean in the Irish IT and Startup Scene?
I’ve had interactions with Ireland over the last probably thirty years and there was a big surge of interest in Lean when Dell came to Galway and there was a whole cluster of electronics companies around Dell and then there was a whole bunch of pharmaceutical companies around Cork and Waterford so it’s quite well-known in production and supply chain activities. I’ve not seen any Irish interest in the Lean IT world. We’ve been running a Lean IT conference in Paris for the last four years, bringing together the digital pioneers and that’s growing apace and there’s a lot of interest but I haven’t seen anybody from Ireland there yet so there’s market to be tapped obviously.
Theres a very active scene in London and Stockholm and Berlin and I’m aware of those, and I'm aware of some of the stuff going on in Paris. Dublin always struck me as a place where all the big guys went to hire bright young things, the Dells and Googles all went to Dublin because they thought they were going to get low tax rates and they hired lots of people and the Irish economy crashed and now they’re all actually reversing those decisions and saying, well maybe Ireland wasn’t so great after all. So I think Ireland's got to compete not just on having lots of bright young things and not just on low tax rates, that a lure but it’s not sustainable and you know what's happening in Berlin and Stockholm and London and California is where it’s at. Is Dublin going to be one of those? I have no idea.
leanuk.org | @DanielJonesLean