Disrupt & Win: Next-Level Lean Process Improvement

Disrupt & Win: How to Achieve Next-Level Lean Process Improvements with Custom Apps

Is your business having trouble keeping up?

It is time to get lean.

Kaizen – Continuous Improvement

Kaizen is a core principle from Lean that lays the foundation of how we choose the right custom enterprise mobile and web apps for process improvement efforts.  Loosely translated from Japanese, kaizen means “change for the better”; but kaizen is bigger and bolder than tacking on an improvement to an existing structure – it is the process of continuously breaking down a process, removing unnecessary effort or waste, and rebuilding it as a more efficient and effective process.

In custom enterprise app consulting, kaizen is the ultimate goal of the discovery and analysis we follow in finding the key enterprise workflow that is both proprietary to an organization’s competitive advantage while (sometimes surprisingly) it is also a source of pain and waste.  Because this seems contradictory, companies rarely ask for the application that will make the biggest difference to their organization.  To plan a truly disruptive roadmap that will position your key processes for sustainable competitive advantage takes a level of honesty and vision that is not easy to tackle alone.   Here are some key concepts from Lean that we use to help you plan your enterprise app portfolio and take your kaizen to a whole new level.


The Three Actuals – Genba, Genbutsu, Genjitsu

Lean consulting begins with finding the 3 Gen or “actuals” of your enterprise.  Kaizen is impossible without direct insight into the organization, so these three “actuals” are critical to finding the right apps that can succeed big and drive the adoption of innovation and mobility as a competitive strategy:

  1. The Genba – By visiting the Genba or “Actual Place” where business is done, products are built, and revenue is generated, an enterprise solutions consultant can view and understand the operations that create value, whether in a factory, a medical facility, or a sales showroom.  Through first-hand observation, rather than conversation, far more can be learned about what an organization does, how it is done, and why it is done.  Whiteboards and conference calls can never convey the real heart of an enterprise, the “What’s the point?” or the “What’s it worth?” as it is experienced by the people who keep each process moving, so coming to the actual place is critical to building out a solution that speaks to the pain felt by the people performing the work.  These pains tend to originate from inefficiencies and information asymmetries that workers will protect out of a fear of change.  Changing a process through training or a set of new rules often fails for this reason.  The disruptive influence of a mobile solution shortcuts this fear – mobile adoption rates are accelerating and new generations of employees demand the simplicity and focus of apps in the workplace.  These employees must capture real value in order to drive higher revenue and operational cost savings – getting to know their daily workplace experience is crucial.
  2. The Genbutsu – If possible, a great consultant doesn’t just watch, it is even better to directly interact with the genbutsu or “Actual Thing” – the real equipment being moved throughout a hospital or the customer “hand-off” artifacts.  In Lean Manufacturing, this often focused on the actual parts being assembled, the path those parts travel in a factory, and finding ways to simplify repetitive motions, reduce unnecessary travel distances through better placement of the work stations, or reducing the complexity of a step in the process by changing the order in which pieces were added to the final product.  In enterprise mobile solutions the “actual thing” is often information and the path it takes before and after that information becomes data and drives actions that produce revenue.  Information is easily decontextualized, so minimizing context-switching in the information-data-action flow is critical.  Mobile solutions drive context-awareness that turns social information into actionable data immediately and cuts out waste.
  3. The Genjitsu – Jitsu is an art, skill, or practice; a word that evolved etymologically from the characters meaning “a step along the middle of a road”.   In Lean consulting, this means we must grasp and communicate the “actual situation” as it pertains to one process as a step in an overall flow.  More importantly, we must quantify the reality of the process as objectively as possible, separate from emotional responses due to ego, social status in the organization, or feelings of blame.  We do this by obtaining data, making hypotheses, documenting workflows, and validating assumptions.  The goal is to not only make a well-informed decision about the most valuable apps that can be created, but to validate the features that will be part of it.

Once the three “actuals” are known, sources of waste can be objectively identified, solutions crafted and prioritized, and an initial Minimum Viable Product can be determined.  First, let’s review how we can create custom apps using proven Lean process improvement tactics.


Just In Time – Why mobile?

Mobile apps are fundamentally on-the-go and on-demand.  The instantaneous nature of communication using mobile allows the Just-in-Time management philosophy  to apply to operations processes, delaying resource commitment and investment until it is absolutely necessary.  This allows the shortest possible feedback cycle between demand and supply and removes waste due to information asymmetry.  If you have ever been left alone as a sales rep checks inventory or watched someone wait on hold to obtain manager approval, you know you know how painful – for the employee and the consumer – a lack of instantaneous information-data-action can be.

Just-in-Time is well defined by its original proponent, the Toyota Production System:

Supplying “what is needed, when it is needed, and in the amount needed” according to this production plan can eliminate waste, inconsistencies, and unreasonable requirements, resulting in improved productivity.

via Toyota

Since our app strategy is founded on upgrading key resources by removing wasted time and effort, mitigating inconsistent process throughput and output, and unreasonable rules and requirements to “protect” against costly mistakes, Just-in-Time is central to every great enterprise app portfolio.  Social information becomes actionable data, from answering time-sensitive questions to triggering purchases.  Real-time communication can replace unnecessary meetings, a highly focused and intuitive user experience can replace training memorization of rules.  The ability to ignite a chain reaction from 3 taps of an iPad is an incredible time and cost saving that can also create enormous additional value that can be captured more quickly.

Implementing Just-in-Time through custom apps allows real-time analytics about the process and its evolution, a “version history” for process improvements, gamification of as-you-work training, and a real-time feedback system for future kaizen.  This means creating continuous flow, level-loading process steps, creating “smart” tools, standardizing quality of work, and balancing minimal investment against highest value productivity is not only simplified, it is easy to validate process impact quickly.


The Yamazumi Board – Creating Continuous Flow

The first step in improving a process with one or more apps is documenting the existing workflows as the focal point of discussion and as the baseline for hypotheses about potential improvements.  There are software tools for this, but post-it notes on a whiteboard can work as well.  Yamazumi literally means “to pile in heaps” and this is exactly what how the analysis is completed, by stacking each step in a process in columns representing each person or role in the workflow.  This could be fairly high-level, tracking the flow of a paper form across the organization, or extremely granular, such as every step in the manufacturing and assembly of a complex product.

via Michel Baudin

By documenting the steps of a process in this way we can easily visualize the imbalances in a workflow, identify the “pace maker” process, discover bottlenecks, and clearly see the cost of unproductive downtimes.  Combining roles that cause diffusion of responsibility, separating roles that cause unnecessary task switching, and removing unnecessary “fail-safe” measures will remove waste and reduce cycle time, making the process more efficient overall.

Once each process in the workflow is organized into an ideal future state on the yamazumi board, we can easily see the specific tool each role will need to be as effective as possible at creating value.  If each tool has a unique user base, we will consider each tool a separate app that we can evaluate and prioritize based on expected returns.  Next we evaluate how strategic disruption using a mobile-first mentality will create impact above and beyond simply reorganizing existing resources.  Whether we are targeting information, inventory management, or customer interaction, our app portfolio needs to work as a seamless ecosystem that facilitates continuous flow across the entire value stream.  Through notifications, context awareness, and on-the-go data connectivity, we are able to brainstorm solutions to each identified pain that can achieve heijunka.

Heijunka – Level Loading

The Lean Lexicon, 4th Edition defines heijunka as:

Heijunka is leveling the type and quantity of production over a fixed period of time. This enables production to efficiently meet customer demands while avoiding batching and results in minimum inventories, capital costs, manpower, and production lead time through the whole value stream.

Once we have seen how our piles of work are should be distributed to achieve continuous flow we then need to identify the pains and inefficiencies that exist even when the process is running smoothly.  Before we can prioritize a roadmap of custom mobile apps, it is important to know the elements of a process that are consuming unnecessary time and resources, find and remove batch-and-queue systems that create process bottle necks, and smooth out supply and demand.  Because we have distributed process steps across focused roles using the yamazumi board, we can now look at the specific pain points that each tool can address for each role.

In Lean Manufacturing, the concept of heijunka is taught using forecasting in supply chain management.  The more unpredictable the demand, the more advanced the forecasting algorithm may be but delaying differentiation, stabilizing production, and reducing inventory holding costs is always possible.  When creating disruptive-grade process improvement with custom mobile apps we can apply the same principles to “memes” and look for the inefficiencies, loss of fidelity, and bottle necks in processes that transform context-specific social information into data that is actionable across multiple roles.  To win at disruption and to resolve internal information asymmetries and bottlenecks, we need to think through solutions that remove the noise from the signals we rely on to forecast processes.  To this, we use custom apps to control selection, throughput, and output.


Jidoka – Autonomation

From the Toyota Production System, the concept of jidoka – “automation with a human touch” means that machines are “smart” enough to identify their own failure, empowering human operators to rectify the problem before faulty parts enter the production line.  Before autonomation these parts were only tested at the end of the production line, so a single machine creating bolts for engines could make an entire day’s work unsuitable to ship!  To mitigate the immense risk of an entire factory-day’s production being scrapped, an operator could be placed at each machine, checking quality of output at regular intervals.  Jidoka is the next evolution of this process improvement, so that machines judge their own quality and a single operator is able to validate the accuracy and quality of several machines, reducing the number of resources required per machine.

In an enterprise app portfolio, the ability to focus a user on completing a single workflow quickly with context-based help and input validation accomplishes similar autonomation.  The more focused an app is on a single user completing a specific task, the less we will need restricted access and complex logic.  Instead, the technological investment can be focused on context awareness and assistance.  This creates a powerful ability to the guide subjective observation of an employee into objective judgment.  Rather than increasing training, creating new policies and punishments, and increasing managerial oversight – an a attempt at a “fail-safe” environment – we want to create intuitive “smart” solutions that create a “safe-to-fail” environment in which some mistakes are no longer possible and consequences are minimized.  This empowers employees to consistently succeed and removes the stress of failure, all while reducing the need for direct managerial oversight and human approval processes.  Anywhere your employee is asked to supply critical information or responsible for continuous flow to the next process step, we want to facilitate responsiveness and guided interaction, then capture and aggregate data as Business Intelligence that can inform both the worker and organization leadership about decisions being made.  Anywhere an employee must manage machines or technology, the inner working of which only a specialist would understand, we want to create an interface into the health of the process rather than set the false expectation that every employee can be skilled at

Once the solutions to process pain and waste are imagined – with an eye on “smart”, intuitive mobile workflow tools – we want to look for ways to ensure that throughput and output are consistent in time, effort, and quality.


Standard Work

Through effective information architecture and user experience design, the mobile app user is able to follow an established and intuitive workflow of interactions that are ideally context-aware.  So in addition to the focus, empowerment, and autonomation improvements, going mobile is a time to analyze current best demonstrated practices internally and externally, and standardize them.  Standardizing what is done, how it is done, and creating consistency of output not only reduces the necessity of identifying and addressing under-performers, it creates a context for the employee in which output quality is held constant for them, enabling focus on critical thinking and social engagement rather than policies and spreadsheet-like information tables.  Even more importantly, once work is standardized with a mobile application (e.g. instead of a document template) the consistency of output and capture of Business Intelligence will allow an objective review of “best” practices, assist with hypothesis and experimentation removing some of the emotion and politics from the kaizen process.

Once changes are identified, effective MDM enables your organization to control the shift to a more effective practice by simply releasing a new version of the software.  Build any training (using interstitial screens) and feedback (with modal per-feature ratings) directly into the application.


Minimum Viable Product

The end goal of removing interruptions to continuous flow, level-loading processes against fluctuations in supply and demand, and removing information asymmetries and process waste is to attain Minimum Viable Production – a process state in which we find a “sweet spot” in the tension between minimizing invested value while maximizing return on that investment.

This goal will need to be reached on three levels:  the process being improved upon, investment in improving the process, and prioritization of the custom app investment portfolio.  Because we are disruptively and potentially drastically rebuilding a process we need to understand the point of diminishing marginal utility for inputs to the process itself as a precursor to determining the investment we should make in it.  If we are attempting to increase revenue through an improved sales representative process, we need to recognize that increased capacity does not increase demand – we will need to identify stabilizing and increasing supply can result in an unfair advantage in the market.  If demand for a process output is unlikely to grow, investing in increased capacity is ill-advised.

If we focused purely on minimalist production, we would drastically rebuild our core operations processes – stripping out anything unnecessary to gaining the “easiest” productivity possible.  A true focus on minimalism might even cut revenue in favor of margins by creating less value.  Opposing this approach would be a total focus on viability, in which we invest to upgrade processes and resources regardless of ROI to achieve the most robust value stream possible.  Ideally, this would give us sustainable competitive advantage, assuming we raise so many barriers to entry that we create near-monopoly conditions.  However, most gaining economic rents in this way can take years to capture, making the investment risky.  By maintaining a tension between minimal investment and maximal viability, we can minimize necessary inputs while holding output constant, increasing process ROI.  If desired we can then establish a path for increasing input while holding ROI constant.

With mobile apps, we facilitate minimum viable product by transforming the nature of the steps taken in a workflow, the number of steps, the number of operators required, and minimizing time to complete each step.  By removing all delays in information transfer and introducing autonomation we are able to bring downtime to an absolute minimum.  Maximizing ease of completion and minimizing time to completion is therefore the overarching goal of mobilizing any process.

Once we have a full understanding of the next-level lean processes, we take the mobile apps we have dreamed up and create a prioritized roadmap for investment in our app portfolio.  While the “big dreams” white-boarding session is an important first conversation, defining Minimum Viable Product for both the processes we will disrupt and the process improvement investment we will make is critical to ensuring the app roadmap is continuously focused on the improvement with the highest incremental impact.

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