A journey

I am a trained scientist. Science taught me to be curious about learning, and to always ask “what else is possible?”. The stories of great scientists, enlightened men and women, who, in the face of adversity, trusted in the raw evidence of their scientific discoveries to challenge established beliefs, have always inspired me. Innovation is my passion.

Then I discovered Lean. Again, I loved the human story of the empowerment it gave to its early practitioners – enlightened men and women, faced with business adversity, trusting the power of people to create a thinking culture, relentlessly innovating, removing barriers to add value, and always focusing on satisfying their customers’ needs.

I dedicated my career, as a Lean professional, to helping Pharmaceutical and Medical Device companies (scientists in QC and R&D labs primarily!) to transform their operations, using Lean to innovate, to deliver effective and efficient processes. My years of experience in labs: successful application of Lean tools to the lab, and delivery of meaningful results, allows me to claim to have some niche expertise.

I always did my best to follow the Lean philosophy: to be inclusive, to share my knowledge and to learn new things from the people I worked with. Or at least that was what I always told myself.

But as time passed, and I moved from “successful project” to “successful project”, one issue persisted. It rankled, like a stone in my shoe (though far more irksome!). It rankled because I didn’t want to believe it existed. I had held myself up as being a true Lean sensei. I believed my inclusivity, openness, and people engagement meant that resulted in this issue would NEVER occur. But the issue was there, in almost all of my work.

After project implementation, the issue manifested itself in one of two ways:

  1. The Lean Lab solution eroded over time and was ultimately abandoned
  2. The solution creaked under pressure and internal lab teams had to expend considerable time and energy to manage complexity and, over time, evolve the solution.

The latter usually relied on a couple of individuals who took it upon themselves to rapidly learn and take responsibility on top of their “normal duties”.

An epiphany, and new world

I finally realised that turning a blind eye and pretending that the issue wasn’t “my fault”, not only made things worse, but threatened to undermine everything about science, innovation and Lean that I valued and held dear.

In 2016, I left the company I worked for, and with a few other “enlightened” colleagues, set up our own company. Our first aim was to challenge everything we had been doing: our thought processes and biases, and search for a new, better way to support teams and organisations to create a sustainable environment of removing obstacles from the journey of pursuing value.

An enlightenment

In April 2017, thanks to an invitation from Bella Englebach, I attended the LPPDE Europe conference in Paris, France. At this point I had little exposure to Lean Product Development, save for reading about Toyota’s endeavours. But I attended with an open mind, hoping to learn and gain some valuable personal development.

One of the first sessions that I attended was by Michael Ballé, who told me, and everyone else present, that everything I had been doing up to that point was a waste of time, and to stop. Okay, I was on a new journey of challenging myself, but I still I thought, “what arrogance!”

Later, I attended talks from Norbert Majerus, Phillip Holt and Katherine Radeka and a curious thing happened. I found joy! I listened to people telling stories about how Lean liberated and disrupted, about how people drove change from the ground up and were championed for their efforts. I learned about Value Engineering, Concurrent Engineering, Rapid Learning Cycles, Agile, Lean Leadership and Virtual Visual Management and it was invigorating. I met people with passion, and focus, and a true understanding of what it meant to be “Lean”.

I resolved to use my new knowledge to help product development teams to innovate to solve their customers’ problems and went home to figure out a way to be a part of this “new” world.

Another enlightenment!

Initially, my colleagues and I focused our efforts on developing a Lean Innovation framework specifically for product developers. We even did some great work with a team developing a next generation flagship product in a leading medical device company. But it wasn’t until we turned our attention back to our “grass roots” (in labs), that we started to gain clarity.

Why should Lean Innovation be solely the preserve of the product developers? Indeed, why should operational excellence be solely limited to those connected to operational processes? Is this why LDDPE is the Lean Product and Process Development Exchange? Of course it was! Sometimes common sense is not that common, and it takes some time to open one’s eyes to a new paradigm.

We went back to the labs where we had done so many successful projects. We stood in the shoes of the people working there and asked them (and ourselves) “what was in it for them?” Why would they want to participate, own and become responsible for Lean solutions? Sure, you can point to the benefits from a business perspective such as productivity, quality and speed. But do these benefits really resonate with the teams on the ground?

The answer to that was a resounding NO!

A new focus

I now realise that my past Lean efforts, however well intentioned, were simply more structures of control in a rules-based culture of compliance. And the result was always the same. People would comply, and, over time, solutions would become sub-optimal. Lean was, and often is, seen as just another way of enforcing the rules for the benefit of the businesses. There was an absence of joy, both in the work and the solution, and change was “managed” (most of the time not very well!).

I now understand more about the belief of the true spirit of Lean being in empowering and developing people to continuously innovate to solve their problems, and their customers’ problems. By providing “operational” teams access to Lean Thinking, and innovation techniques such as design thinking, rapid learning and concurrent engineering (to name but a few), you can simultaneously achieve on a number of important levels.

  1. You develop people who are empowered to be truly innovative and arm them with the tools they need to deliver new layers of value for their organisation and solve the problems of their customers.
  2. You engender a culture of continuous innovation where people are encouraged to always look for solutions to their own problems and strive for smooth and seamless work
  3. The business reaps the financial benefits of the product and process innovations
  4. You achieve full ownership and sustainability of change, which is “pulled” rather than “pushed”

“To make products (or processes), first you make people”. When facing issues with what you are doing, don’t fall into the trap of solving the simpler problems that you already know you can solve. Don’t revert to spot productivity improvements…

Be brave! Draw on the strategic import of Lean. Trust in and embrace the people involved. Start a new revolution! Often! Bring back the JOY to peoples working lives. By “joy” I mean doing work which is valuable for the business of the stakeholder, and also brings a feeling of personal and professional fulfilment for the individual.

Michael Ballé was right!

We all need to shout STOP every so often.

Though I worked for years with lab scientists, it took me those years to consciously realise the importance of the most obvious fact: laboratory teams are highly educated and have been academically and practically trained to innovate and solve problems. Like me, on my journey, that is what they signed up for.

Modern management and quality requirements have conspired to standardise and organise (for good reason), so providing these teams and people with an outlet to express themselves and showcase their knowledge, entrepreneurial acumen and scientific ability will deliver far more value in the long term than any implementation of tools could ever hope for.

And the opportunity to help people on that journey is more than I could ever hope for. I would like to thank the organisers of LPPDE (including Michael Ballé!) for the personal enlightenment.

Alan Maloney is consultant at Avellana Innovation.