My friend Bob Caveney shared with me a story he had recently heard. It may be one you have heard before, but it got me thinking about lean and process improvement approaches and how they are applied by various companies.
A guy was busy mopping the floor one evening in a company. An exec walked by and asked, “Why are you mopping the floor?” His response was, “Because it’s dirty, and our company values don’t allow a dirty floor, and this area performs better if the floor is clean.”
Ok so far as it goes. How would you go about improving the floor mopping process? With a re-engineering approach, we might look at how we could automate the process and remove the worker. Perhaps a Roomba floor mopper would work?
With a process improvement U.S. fad-managment focused company, this would be their umpteenth (that is a technical term my mom taught me that means a lot) process improvement project, so they would assemble a process improvement team (that might even include the mopper) and see how they could improve the process.
They would start by mapping the “as is” process and look for waste in the process. They might even ask what outcome the process was trying to produce to make sure the “to be” process produced the same outcome (or better).
But, how about a truly “lean thinking” company that actually understood lean thinking and the culture it implies? How would that company approach this question? Simple, the mopper himself would be asking “What is causing the floor to be dirty in the first place?” He would know that if you can eliminate the root cause of the problem, mopping, an inherently non-value-added activity, would be eliminated. And he would do that without worrying about losing his job, because he wouldn’t.
That is the fundamental difference between true lean thinking and the current fad-based lean thinking that is making the rounds.