Lean Thinking

Educational leaders across the country are sharpening their pencils in preparation for another tough budget cycle. In light, I’m reminded of this great piece in the Washington Post penned by U.Va. Darden School of Business Dean Bob Bruner and the even better follow-up on his blog. Take the time to read both.

In short, I pulled these three pearls on what lean thinking should really mean:

The dire challenge posed by the financial crisis and our experience in responding to it offers at least three lessons.

Leadership. Going lean is not an exercise to be relegated to the time-and-motion experts. Leadership is indispensable. The leader (at the top, middle, or at the front line of the organization) has to set the tone of lean thinking–it can’t just be about cost cutting; it must be about transforming the organization for high performance; it can’t justbe thinking about doing with less money, it must be about working differently. If all you want to do is cut costs, then you don’t need a leader; you need a technician. This is the central difference between the lean thinkers and the cost-cutters.

Harness the network. As the saying goes, there is more knowledge in the network (such as your community or the Internet) than in the heads of the few people immediately around you. The best ideas come from people distant from the CEO (such as the front line). Therefore the leader must learn to listen well. Going lean isn’t simply a matter of a top-down directive. This means that the senior leader has to engage in outreach and facilitation with a cross-section of people. As we teach at Darden, the term, “leader,” isn’t reserved for the supremo at the top of the organization—leaders can be found throughout organizations. You must lead from where you are, wherever you are. From there you must work the network.

Patience and persistence. Lean thinking entails a culture change within an organization, and culture change takes time. Tangible progress may not be immediately visible. The best lean operators are relentless in their pursuit of muda—and over time they show dramatic advantages in quality and cost over their competitors.

Difficult decisions are inevitable and we must carefully consider every resource allocation. What’s the impact of each investment? How will we project and evaluate that impact? The choices we make, as Dean Bruner suggests, will separate the leaders from the technicians.

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