What is Lean?

How can we use Lean principles in digital delivery?

What is Lean?

To understand what lean is, it helps to look back at its origins in the automotive industry. Henry Ford introduced the automotive assembly line in 1913. Production lines were a step-change in productivity over the hand-built individual products that came before it. However, that efficiency came at a cost, agility. Henry Ford’s Model T's production line could only build one model. This manufacturing method continued not just in the automotive industry but for most mass-produced products. Changing products involved a new line or expensive downtime to change the tools to make the new product. Inventory stockpiles compensated for the periods between production runs, driving up business costs and increasing waste.

In the late forties, Toyota began to codify methods of improving efficiency and quality in these systems. They started with just-in-time, eventually laying the foundations for the Toyota Production System and lean knowledge schools.

Most pre-lean organizations have a similar structure. The word ‘division’ is paramount. Companies divide people by division, markets, and roles. Looking at the flow of value within your organization from team to team, you will see disjointed and unconnected workplaces with wasted time and resources.

Lean teaches us to look at the value we create for our customers and prioritize this over the processes that deliver it. It requires us to restructure our organization and mindset to optimize the flow of value down the pipeline to the customer.

With lean, we aim to remove waste by reconfiguring the organizational structure around the products. It requires senior buy-in and can take considerable effort and investment. But the rewards are massive. I will show you how much waste you tacitly permit within your process and how you can get your time between releases down from months or years to less than a day. We couple this with moving from batch-production to single-piece flow (more later). Having smaller batches of components or products means less inventory. Less inventory means less rework or waste in the event of an issue. To enable single-piece flow, we need to reduce tooling time at each cell in the production line.

A well-organized interface or handover between cells ensures that the inputs and outputs are closely aligned and connected to improve flow. Imagine a production line. One cell makes boxes. Across the factory, another makes widgets. The ‘box’ cell outputs packaging boxes ready for the next cell to fill. The box-creating cell takes empty boxes from the output of the box production line and moves them across the factory to a shelving unit. The widget cell brings batches of boxes from the shelves to the widget line to package them up. It adds waste to the system. We need high batch numbers of containers to ensure ample supply for the widget line. It also involves unnecessary inventory movement (the boxes) around the factory. We solve this problem by moving the lines into cells and coupling the cells so that the box line feeds the widget line. We increase flow and reduce inventory.

We will rely on some primary concepts in Lean to help us deliver this transformation:

  • We will build a Kaizen culture that collaborates in an agile unit to provide your product value. We will use that culture to deliver continual improvement to increase the flow of value over time.
  • Lean is not a top-down strategy to push from senior to middle management as a directive. We lead from the genba or shop floor. We will roll up our sleeves and help deliver change in culture, structure, processes, tools, technology, and, most importantly, minds.

We also have five principles in Lean to help us achieve meaningful change.

  1. Identify the value - we need to look at the products we deliver and decide which adds value to our customers.
  2. Map the value stream - we will perform Genchi Genbutsu (go and see: real location, real thing) or look at our value stream to see how it flows through our processes. We will be doing the virtual genba walk. We will walk the path of ideas as they progress.
  3. Create flow - we will look for the system’s waste and systematically eliminate it using all the tools at our disposal. We need to look at people, communication, technologies, architectures, and tools to see how we can best align people for a smooth flow of change.
  4. Establish pull - we will re-orient the people doing the work to pull their task rather than having someone push it on to them.
  5. Aspire to perfection - we will unite the culture around the products and value streams to provide a safe space for people to experiment, fostering a continuous improvement culture.

We will use these concepts and techniques to establish the Lean designed4devops practice within the organization. We will use this as a foothold to identify the best products for improving flow and build a culture of like-minded people around it to ensure its success.