Technology’s evolving role in supporting continuous improvement

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 07-25-13

Continuous improvement has always had a strained relationship with technology, for both good reasons and bad. One of the good is that doing things manually and building your own systems can be a one of the most productive means of learning you can create.

One of the worst reasons is that because Toyota wasn’t using technology when they created the Toyota Production System (regardless of the fact that it was in the 50s and 60s when many of the developments were created), that therefore it has nothing to do with lean. This couldn’t be a worse reason, especially since things began with technology and the creation of the Toyoda automatic loom.

Technology can serve several purposes that enable lean. Here are 3 examples of technology enabling continuous improvement, and how it enables lean principles.

Orion Fleet Intelligence and distributed resources

It’s one thing to go out on the factory floor and observe a machine running. But how do you observe distributed resources, such as the utility company’s meter readers, or the Postal worker, or the in-home nurse. You can’t spend all of your time driving around to see what people are doing, and you can’t exactly use satellite technology. Do how do you get as direct as possible a view into the current condition as possible?

Orion Fleet Intelligence does exactly this [full disclosure: I’m an investor]. Going beyond other fleet intelligence solutions that utilize GPS technology, Orion has focused more on how the data is captured, structured, provided, and utilized to provide opportunities to improve fleet operations.

Here are examples.

The first image shows the performance of drivings driving too fast over the speed limit over time, and the next chart shows instances of driving over 70 miles per hour over time. Once the systems were put in place, and managers given the mechanisms to get involved, there were able to demonstrate a substantial improvement in safe driving. And whether it’s safe driving, or avoiding idling vehicles, it is very hard to improve unless you have a grasp of current reality.

Too often problems such as poor driving are solved with speeches and reminders, with specious managers claiming people aren’t being safe with frustrated drivers being tired of not being trusted. The only way to resolve such things is with an objective way to understand the current state. Orion Fleet Intelligence, not the GPS itself but the structure and presentation of the data, is a means to resolve this.

As it relates to lean principles: waste in distributed operations can be very high, in part because there is inherent variation on where and how and under what conditions the work is performed. And we can’t just throw our hands up in the air and say “it’s too hard.” This is waste that represents massive dollars and distributions to customers.

Direct observation is a critical skill in lean. We use tools like process maps to help us visualize the process better that we can with our eyeballs, especially when the process extends in time and space beyond the ability of our eyes. And technology can sometimes give us that same advantage.

KaiNexus and small, rapid improvements

It’s hard enough to get ideas out of employees to improve the work, but even harder when you have to create waste in order to manage them. Sometimes, it’s easy to create a system to get ideas captured, managed, and get feedback; a simple whiteboard will do.

Sometimes, it’s just not that easy. In a hospital, as with other environments, shifts are erratic and people are always on the move. Getting everyone together for even 15 minutes is a major challenge. KaiNexus allows people on the go, such as nurses and other clinical staff, to log their improvement ideas, even on their iPhone as they walk. Ideas get circulated for feedback and escalated for approval [full disclosure: I’ve invested in them too].

Here’s the example of the KaiNexus iPhone idea entry screen:

Obviously, the concept of gathering small and rapid improvement ideas from teams is nothing new. But since lean has expanded past 4-wall manufacturing facilities, each new environment draws its own new challenges. Hospitals and other distributed teams such as field service teams have always struggled with this, and technology such as KaiNexus helps make it just a bit easier [disclaimer: leadership not included].

As it relates to lean principles: true lean journeys are build on a base of engaging front-line staff in the continuous flow of ideas. Anything that reduces the burden of contributing increases the contribution. Waste is often found at the point of activity, and there is nothing like being able to log the idea as it occurs to increase the likelihood of execution. And transparency of any process aids in its management and sustainability, so having the ability to surface and flag issues and generate is helpful.

Trello and managing the flow of knowledge work

Software development has drastically been transformed from the world of project management to semi-autonomous teams who dynamically manage their workload through practices such as scrums and kanban. The heart of these systems is making the work, including its progress and lack of progress, visible. With simple boards, teams manage their flow of work with Queues, Work in Progress, and of course the all-important Done. It obviously can get more complicated than that, but the premise can be that simple.

But this doesn’t apply to just software development. It applies to any workflow of variable knowledge work, even down to the individual level. I used to use the panes of my office doors as columns to move Post-its around to prioritize and focus my work when in the office (an all-too-rare occasion). But that’s not convenient for me given my travel. And it is not convenient for distributed teams, especially globally distributed teams, to be working off of a wall.

I’ve started using Trello as an online tool (including nicely packaged iPad and iPhone apps) for turning the visual wall board into a flexible online app. Here’s an example of how it looks, as you drag one Post-it from one column to another (this is a fictitious example of how a sales team work board might look):


I would much prefer a wall and a standing meeting around a board. There is no question in my experience that this is a better dynamic. But when circumstances make that infeasible, Trello is a great alternative. Teams should first do whatever it takes to build this process manually before moving to a tool such as Trello, but once the rules and processes and behaviors have been learned the tool can simplify the board element of the process. Why is this so important? Because scrum and kanban don’t work because of the board; they work because of the dialogue and decision making and team engagement that surrounds the board. Don’t make it about the board, any more than you make it about the online system.

As it relates to lean principles: It is hard to manage work that you can’t see, and systems such as this make the work visible. You can see the waste, such as overburdened resources. You can see problems, such as priority work that isn’t making progress (which sometimes is the biggest benefit to me personally). And it leads to high agreement because the work can be prioritized and managed as a team, leading to productive conversations both internally and with customers about what is most important.

There are many other examples of technology enabling lean practices. They are never a substitute for culture, for behaviors, for skill, or for leadership. Don’t adopt technology just because it sounds good. Don’t launch full-scale into a process you haven’t tried or tested or understand. But also don’t be afraid of it. Technology, when used purposefully, can be a great help.

Reflection question: How have you used technology to enable your continuous improvement efforts?


  • I believe that social collaboration technology and the related values of empowerment and transparency will play a key role in the next step for Lean and will truly enable it to flourish in decentralized enterprises.

    I am actually not that convinced about the examples you provided: they seem to be isolated islands, whereas the technology is moving towards comprehensive networks where multiple solutions coexist and support each other on the same platform or at least on the same portal.

    There are many ways in which technology can complement Lean:

    1. Social media, crowdsourcing, and other new ways to be in direct contact with the customers will help determine the things that customers hold valuable. This is one part where Lean is strongly committed on value level but where the actual toolkit has been lacking.

    2. Social collaboration software can help within the enterprise, especially in decentralized enterprises. For example, I have built suggestion systems, similar to the KaiNexus you discussed, on Confluence platform, with the added benefit that these ideas are strongly visible on the main collaboration platform for all employees to comment and refine.

    3. Social collaboration software can help with suppliers and deepen the collaboration via improved information flow, directly from engineer to engineer yet transparent for the entire team.

    Ville Kilkku July 25, 2013 at 6:00 am
  • I could not agree more with this post, Jamie and Ville!

    Combining social collaboration with visual controls (a la Trello) and a mobile/cloud infrastructure to capture improvement ideas anywhere/anytime (and have peers rate them) is what I think the lean movement needs to propel to the next phase of adoption in the 21st century. The tech also needs to implement simple workflow management techniques like they have in construction with “pull planning” and in IT with Agile “stories” and stand-up meetings.

    So, of course I believe this so strongly that I just had to build it 🙂


    Emilio July 25, 2013 at 10:54 am
  • While I have probably fostered a reputation for being against technology over the years, I am not ‘anti-tech’. Why would I be? There are some fantastic solutions available for almost every need, desire and business out there.

    Perhaps it goes back to the way I was taught. Do it the hard way first, respect the process, understand and learn how to do whatever it is you are doing without technology, so that you appreciate the assistance provided and can still function should the lights go out.

    In today’s ‘microwave generation’ where everything must be available now now now there appears to be little or no respect for the ability to accomplish tasks without some form of technology. As an avid learner of Continuous Improvement, Lean, OpEx (call it what you will) I am personally fascinated with learning how something works, then seeing where technology can support, replace, or enhance elements of what we do.

    The ability to observe operations across multiple units, compare performance, run comparisons etc….is a wonderful thing and should be embraced but not at the expense of learning how something works in the real world.

    The current reality appears to be that tech is an all or nothing solution. We either implement a full blown system to do X, or we strip out all the systems and manage by clipboard.

    I believe the answer lies in a blend of both. Develop your process to run in as effective and efficient a manner possible, introducing tools that further enhance the effectiveness and efficiency.

    Dig out and dust off the firms Business Continuity Plan, add the manual process and measures to it. That way should some unforeseen event prevent the technology doing what it should the process still operates well and the performance expectation is already set.

    Technology has its place in processes, but I am wary of putting all my eggs in one basket. Its not the solution, I believe it is part of the solution to the riddle ‘how do we manage our process’.

    Chris July 26, 2013 at 1:28 pm