There’s, without question, a bias against the idea that software could be a tool used to help companies accelerate their Lean journey. Lean and Continuous Improvement as we know it today were born in the mid-1900’s, when whiteboards, sticky notes, and printed forms were the latest and greatest tech. Somehow the CI community got stuck in a time capsule, still using the same information technology from that foregone era, falling behind the rest of the world. The mid-1900’s was a time when software technology was also in its infancy but making great strides to increase productivity in industry and later, at home. No doubt, our forefathers, just like Lean practitioners of today, saw this emerging and limitless technical capability as competition. The pioneers of Lean and CI looked at software technology in its infancy and placed a bet against it. They bet against the creativity and ingenuity of people like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Steve Jobs; against an inevitable force of the desire for technological advantage; and against the prospect that one day, software would be eating the entire world. Then they hard-coded this bet into the hundreds of books that now circulate the world, creating new Lean practitioners by the day. They clearly did not see a global pandemic coming that would grind world economies to a halt if not for our ability to work remotely via technology. This includes performing work critical to progressing and sustaining CI efforts.
When they did this, they were engineers, betting against the very principle of engineering – the idea that good behaviors, ideas, and works could be brought to scale with the effective application of technology. This is the very idea that brought on the industrial revolution and every other leap in human advancement regarding productivity. Perhaps they believed that companies would see software and technology as an “easy way” to get better results, as opposed to the painstaking work needed to develop human problem-solving skills, proactively drive out waste, and develop the discipline to proficiently execute standard processes. Similar to a grandfather looking at their grandson using a calculator and feeling like the child would be better off learning to do the math in their head; because “that’s the way we used to do it”. They could not fathom that that same child might grow up to build Apple, Amazon, or Google; companies that have done more to create value for customers and eliminate waste than the manual processes that they replaced could ever do. Its unfortunate that our forefathers, with all of their brilliance and remarkable contributions, took such a position against technology; and particularly software. History of life on earth has taught us that one thing is true for certain; in the long run, technology beats humans every single time when it comes to productivity; and the same is true in Continuous Improvement. A million master black belts in martial arts with ninja stars and samurai swords are no match for an idiot with a nuclear weapon, sitting at home in their underwear, on the computer eating Cheetoes – one click and the fight is over before it started. Taking an anti-technology posture has potentially been the single most detrimental thing that could be done to delay the advancement of their own grandchild: the discipline of Continuous Improvement.
Here are a few things our Lean forefathers got totally wrong (and we are still getting wrong) about software technology in relation to Continuous Improvement:
Myth: It enables people to distance themselves from the gemba
In CI, there is no substitute for immersing yourself in the very place where the work is happening, also known as “the gemba”. Only there can all 5 (or 6 if you include empaths) of your senses can be deployed to grasp the reality of what’s happening on the value stream in its full essence. This is why experience is absolutely the best teacher. The concept of “go to gemba without exception” was developed at a time when technologies such as Virtual and Augmented Reality, the Internet, Machine Learning, and Artificial Intelligence didn’t exist. And tech is not done inventing new ways to bring the gemba to you wherever you are in the world. In practicality, you cannot be at every place on the gemba at all points in time. In fact, without some form technology, its nearly impossible to know exactly where you need to be and when. What tech has the capability to do is filter the components of reality to deliver what’s most relevant to you in your role in real-time. Tech has the potential to bring the gemba to you – minus the avalanche of distractions that you are bombarded with when you do go to gemba in person – so that when you go, you can go with more purpose and intent.
Myth: It leads to a decline in problem-solving skills
Problem-solving is probably the most valuable skill on the planet. Losing the ability to think critically and persist through challenges would be detrimental to any person, company, or society at large. Computers are great, and getting better by the minute, at solving problems. However, this doesn’t mean people will have less opportunities to solve problems as well. It means the types of problems people need to solve evolve as computers and technology take on problems that are more technical in nature. Instead of exhausting precious brainpower on addition and multiplication, human talent can be deployed for solving uniquely human problems, like who should be awarded greater authority in the organization, in what direction should the company go, and how to bring greater value to customers with less resources consumed.
Myth: Its a distraction from the “real work”
When I hear this one, I think about how much of my time gets sucked away every time I log into Facebook. There’s a reason software like Facebook are distracting – because they’re trying to keep your attention, which allows them to generate more advertisement revenue. In fact, any business that sells ads is trying to keep you as distracted as possible, like the media for example. Software that have a revenue engine based on business results will tend to be designed for increasing productivity. As a consumer, or user, of tech, you have to choose to engage with software companies whose business models are designed to incentivise them to create products that will lead to an increase in your productivity. This means less distraction and more relevant, mission critical, and timely information, by design.
Myth: It reduces visibility to performance results (as opposed to using whiteboards)
This is one I hear often but won’t spend much time refuting. Software does what it’s designed to do. Nothing has done more for our power to communicate like software technology. Continuous Improvement, as practiced by many companies, has a major communication problem, which may be a huge contributor in why the failure rate is so high for CI initiatives. This leads to low engagement and buy-in, lack of development of the right skills, missed opportunities, and overall worse decision making. Whiteboards will increase visibility to performance (to an extent) but will have you chasing every problem every day and getting nowhere. Software with databases, has the historical perspective to quickly aggregate the one or two issues that are causing 90% of your losses; enabling you to better prioritize your limited resources behind what will make the most difference for your company. This information goes with you – in your pocket at all times. And if you just love the idea of dedicating part of your wall to show performance results, screens with the same information can easily be installed.
Myth: It’s unable to flex with the changing needs of the business
This was absolutely true 80 years ago. Inflexibility can be a huge problem, especially for market-driven companies where demand and customer tastes are always in flux. Tech shouldn’t limit your growth or sustainment, it should enable it. In today’s tech landscape, software can be acquired and deployed on-demand. With the advent of the Cloud and subscription-based business models, companies can get the software they need, when they need it; and when the tool no longer meets the needs of the job, they can leave it behind without penalty. The human skills needed to enable this increase in tech flexibility are better ability to research for whats available and the tech acumen to be able to adopt and become proficient with new tools quickly.
Myth: Its not reliable and bugs could lead to more waste
Sure technology fails (and so do humans). Its just that when the tech fails, it can be more dramatic because it’s productivity level is often exponentially higher. The cost of failure of tech pale in comparison to the upside of productivity gains that come with it as well. In order to keep the good and mitigate the bad, companies need to make computer acumen and software skills a larger part of their capability stack. They can do this by introducing tech to their workforce at a greater pace, piloting more software, and providing training on digital transformation.
Myth: If people don’t manually write their numbers down, they become emotionally detached from results
I do believe that there is some emotional connection to the things that get manually recorded. People love grabbing that green dry-erase marker to jot up a beautiful number after a good day at the plant. The question is: is the benefit to recording things manually greater than the opportunity cost that comes with falling behind technologically? No, of course not! Besides, there’s nothing wrong with handing out journals to all employees so that they can write their hearts away.
While we struggle to transition to an inevitability more digital world, there is hope that the Continuous Improvement community will come to embrace it’s destiny: to lead us into the 4th Industrial Revolution. This will require us all to become more computer and tech savvy; understanding software’s much greater role in increasing productivity, organizational effectiveness, and eliminating waste. Just like the largest taxi service company (Uber) owns no taxi cabs and the largest hospitality company (AirBnB) owns no hotels, the next gargantuan manufacturing company will own no factories. CI people need to stop holding the companies they serve back when it comes to technology and instead embrace a leadership position in the revolution. Technologies like Impruver are specifically designed to strengthen scientific thinking and problem-solving skills within organizations so that this critical capability can be deployed against the world’s most pressing challenges.