Using technology to optimise the lean performance management system in service operations
Ask a lean professional for their top three reasons why projects fail to reach their full potential and an absence of consistent, complete and trusted data is very likely to feature.
Common problem areas include identifying improvement opportunities, actively managing the flow of benefits and demonstrating delivery of those benefits. This limits the effectiveness of improvement interventions but also makes adoption of a consistent lean performance management approach impossible.
There is no shortage of technology available with features intended to help with these challenges. Lean practitioners must be cautious however, to ensure that technology choices do not clash with the desired culture and behaviours. Advancements in data collection technology, in particular, mean that previously inaccessible data can be captured, but careful thought is needed to ensure that people are not distracted from delivering true performance by a perceived need to manage internal metrics.
Many lean practitioners may have mixed feelings about the capability of technology to help them achieve their goals. The number applications (many of which may be highly inflexible) used across even a single value chain can make technology change be slow or impossible.
When it comes to technology to support lean performance management, this can lead to informal, often spreadsheet-based toolsets being used for capturing data, reporting performance, forecasting and planning. Such an approach provides great flexibility and rapid deployment, but anyone who has tried to deploy these solutions at scale will be well aware of the difficulties of ensuring consistency and sustaining good practice. Use of a more robust technology set for this discipline, therefore has many advantages.
But with so much choice available, what is the right technology to use? How do we make sure that a technology will support the people and the process? That it will simplify and not obscure the management challenge.
Here are a few thoughts:
- Seek technology which helps create a responsive “system” by empowering the front line – in particular technology should help the front line manager, not be something they feel they are a slave to.
- Standardise technology across the enterprise to create common language and, through that, encourage a common management process.
- Use technology which can easily align with the existing technology landscape rather than create additional complexity.
- Provide the means of capturing data that reports for people, not just on people and so stimulates engagement and continuous improvement.
Let’s unpack what these could mean in reality.
Creating a responsive system
At the heart of Lean is the ability to respond to customer demand – matching work and resource so that the customer requirements are met without overload (Muri) and without inconsistent working (Mura). A responsive system will move control as close to the customer as possible – empowering team leaders and even team members to make decisions and prioritise in the face of variable customer demand.
Technology can help with this. In the infinitely complex world of service operations with large numbers of activities all happening in parallel with huge variability, it makes sense to bring some computational power to bear in managing the demands being placed on different parts of the organisation. The principle is the same as the original lean manufacturing approaches: help the front line to focus on producing a steady output in line with customer demand.
Make the technology simple enough to be used by the front line, train them to use the technology and trust them to get it right. These are the core elements of a responsive system.
Standardise to create a common language and management process
We should not be too idealistic about front line empowerment. Taiichi Ohno may have said “People don’t go to Toyota to ‘work’, they go to Toyota to think”, but the basis of the scheduling system, of Kanban and Heijunka, were not optional. All the best empowerment starts with a framework – giving people the parameters within which to work.
We believe that technology can be a powerful way of encouraging the behaviours we wish to see as standards. In particular, technology which helps standardise how we manage, not just the way we measure is particularly effective. The capabilities of modern technology can lead to an obsession with measurements which offer limited insight into true performance and move the focus away from using data to plan ahead and create a controlled environment.
Technology which helps standardise the management process gives people a common language, but better yet it makes it easier to work collectively. Rather than trying to control people’s behaviour by rules and diktat, give them tools and apps that make their jobs easier.
Use technology which can easily align with the existing technology landscape
Service operations often have untidy IT application landscapes, with multiple technologies coexisting both to process and transport work. It is essential therefore that technology to support lean performance management can go with the flow, sourcing the data it needs from existing applications without requiring complex IT change.
Technology which is agnostic to the business process and processing technology ensures that the management process can be consistent and optimal across operations and that deployment is both rapid and agile.
Capture data for people, not just on people
We feel that improvements in data capture technology and attempts to re-purpose technology optimised for other environments has led to a return to centralised command structures in service operations. This has led to some very non-Lean approaches, with data being used primarily as a stick to challenge poor performers and very rarely as a means to engage staff and foster ownership of performance.
In a Lean organisation the data should exist to help people not just to stand in judgement over them. Good technology will assist the provision of data that helps people to focus on their jobs, the process and how to drive continuous improvement.