Jamie Flinchbaugh: “Lean won’t work in MY field”

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 07-08-11

I have a new post published on The Lean Edge. See the full article on that site.

What is the hardest field to apply lean? It doesn’t seem to matter what field you’re in, they all think theirs is the hardest. And they can back it up with evidence. One of the most frequent questions I get is “who else in my industry is doing lean?”, because no one wants to be first, and no one wants to be last.

There is a wide range of answers to this question in the series so far, and all of them valid. I’m not sure which is the hardest, but every field of work and every functional application brings its own unique challenges. The key is, how do we respond to the unique challenges we face. This, to me, speaks to response-ability. I misspell this word on purpose for emphasis, because we can choose how we respond to situations. We might be faced with some giant hurdles to overcome, but how we respond to those hurdles is what makes all the difference in the world.

Government is the hardest because they aren’t always sure who the customer is, have many layers of rules and regulations limiting their choices, and much of their waste is unfortunately mandated by law.

Retail is the hardest because they have high turnover, constant price pressure multiplied by promotions and the internet, and very complex supply chains.

Food is the hardest because they have an unpredictable supply line that could be hurt by draught or floods, and they face substantial government oversight and involvement.

Everyone has uber-challenges; but these are often the same for everyone in the field. It’s how we respond, and there are several choices.

  1. The Victim – woe is me. These things happen to me, there is nothing I can do about it, and those are the factors that dominate my organization’s performance.
  2. The Blind Eye – I’ll ignore it. It won’t go away, but I’ll at least make some progress focusing on what I can control.
  3. The Out-flank – I won’t change the condition, but I’ll find a way around it so it doesn’t hurt my performance so much.
  4. The Direct Assault – I’ll break the barrier, and change the game by turning it into a competitive advantage.

Only option #1 is the truly destructive path. Choosing the others might depend on where you sit or how much the barrier matters to you at any particular time. But some phenomenal wins have been created by those who have chosen path #4. Simmons, the mattress company, was stuck using the same supplier for box springs that everyone else did. For this reason among others, they invented their own system, the pocketed-coil, which not only gave them control of their supply but also ended up with a better product. 37signals, the company that has developed tools such as Basecamp and Campfire, did these as an internal project to improve their own project management challenges, and the solutions were so good the business has shifted to this new set of products.

Answering the question “who has it hardest?” doesn’t move things along nearly as far as answering “why do we have it hard?” and more importantly, “what are we doing about it?

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