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The Next Generation of Continuous Improvement for Knowledge Work

George Ellis

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eBook - ePub


The Next Generation of Continuous Improvement for Knowledge Work

George Ellis

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About This Book

Improve: The Next Generation of Continuous Improvement for Knowledge Work presents lean thinking for professionals, those who Peter Drucker called knowledge workers. It translates the brilliant insights from Toyota's factory floor to the desktops of engineers, marketers, attorneys, accountants, doctors, managers, and all those who "think for a living." The Toyota Production System (TPS) was born a century ago to an almost unknown car maker who today is credited with starting the third wave of the Industrial Revolution. TPS principles, better known as lean thinking or continuous improvement, are simple: increase customer value, cut hidden waste, experiment to learn, and respect others. As simple as they are, they are difficult to apply to the professions, probably because of the misconception that knowledge work is wholly non-repetitive. But much of our everyday work does repeat, and in great volume: approvals, problem-solving, project management, hiring, and prioritization are places where huge waste hides. Eliminate waste and you delight customers and clients, increase financial performance, and grow professional job satisfaction, because less waste means more success and more time for expertise and creativity.

This book is a valuable resource for leaders of professional teams who want to improve productivity, quality, and engagement in their organizations.

  • Experience the proven benefits of continuous improvement
  • 40%–70% increase in productivity from professionals and experts
  • >85% projects on-time
  • Reduce lead time by 50%–90%
  • Engagement up and voluntary severance cut >50%
  • Dozens of simple visual tools that anyone can implement immediately in their existing framework
  • All tools and techniques applicable to both face-to-face and virtual meetings
  • Easy-to-understand approach: "simplify, engage, experiment"
  • Presented with deep respect for the experts; no "check the box" thinking or overused analogies to the factory floor

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Chapter 1

30% of what you think is wrong


Continuous improvement or “lean thinking” was born in the 1940s in the Toyota Production System. It's often called “lean manufacturing.” When applied to professional and expert teams like engineering, medicine, business, and finance, it's called “lean knowledge.” Lean thinking is based on the premise that a large portion of our workday is spent creating waste, but we are so used to it that we don't see it. The mystery of lean knowledge is the simplicity of the remedies it recommends juxtaposed with the complexity of the work that professionals do. While there are many techniques and tools, they all reduce to a combination of: (1) simplify to cut the waste we see; (2) engage the full team; and (3) experiment continuously to find waste that's hiding in plain sight. It works. Those who adopt this mindset can double the output of their groups while raising the quality of work product and the engagement of the experts and professionals who carry out the work.


Waste; Lean thinking; Knowledge work; Simplify; Engage; Experiment
Even a wise man probably is right seven times out of ten but must be wrong three times out of ten.
Taiichi Ohno, creator of the Toyota Production System [1]

1.1 A good story

Continuous improvement for knowledge work is my favorite topic. I’ve seen so many times its benefits: customers are delighted, organizational performance improves in virtually every measure, and the experts at the center of it all take deep satisfaction from mastering their craft and growing their leadership skills. I’ve watched teams transform from okay to amazing, following a pattern:
  • At the start, a team of good people trying to do the right thing is stumbling: they are often late, make too many mistakes, and frequently focus on the wrong things. This happens even though they are smart, experienced, and hardworking.
  • Their transformation begins as we search for hidden waste in their workflows. The brilliant insight of lean thinking is that waste is always there in abundant quantities, most of it hiding in plain sight. The core of what professionals and experts do—what we will call knowledge work—is complex, even mysterious, but most of the waste it creates is tedious and predictable.
  • Next, we install a few techniques carefully targeted at real problems. These techniques are a combination of: simplify to cut the waste we see, engage the full team, and experiment continuously to find waste that's hiding in plain sight. A new visualization method. A regular team standup meeting. An unambiguous call to action. A “Single Point of Truth” to give everyone the same information. Quantifying success and then laying out a path to it. Defining the problem thoroughly before starting to solve it. Always simplifying. Always engaging. Always experimenting.
  • A few months later, that team is outperforming its initial level by a margin so wide it's noticed by colleagues, the boss, a few customers, and probably some family members. People in the team smile more and walk taller. At first, many stood back waiting to see results before they bought in. Now almost all are convinced that they can improve, and they want to.
The story never gets old. The people who used to fail now succeed. They always had the ability to succeed. Of course they did. Just learning a profession like medicine, engineering, or finance takes years and only the most capable people qualify. The expertise, diligence, and acumen represented in the average team of knowledge staff take decades to develop. So, the best that can be hoped for within the first months of lean knowledge transformation is to release the capability that is already there. It does. I often hear, “I always knew we could do this.” Usually, no one can point to exactly what changed or when, but there's always a lot of “we,” such as “We are helping each other now” or “We understand each other's problems because we talk to each other.” And people will notice a new common purpose: “We all want the same thing.” And they want more opportunities to get better at what they do, to delight more customers, and to deliver better results to their organization.
Lean knowledge releases the capability that was there already.
Continuous improvement was born in the 1940s in the Toyota Production System. Its roots are on the manufacturing floor where it's often called “lean manufacturing.” When we apply it to what Peter Drucker called “knowledge work”—engineering, medicine, business, finance, and essentially any professionals working in teams—we'll call it “lean knowledge.”
It's surprising that the same thinking works on the factory floor and in the professional office. The mystery of lean knowledge is the simplicity of the remedies it recommends juxtaposed with the complexity of the domains where these people work. Knowledge staff such as doctors, engineers, coders, scientists, and lawyers are smart…really smart. Lean techniques aren’t designed to bring them new domain expertise. Lean thinking is based on the premise that it is rarely a lack of expertise that holds back these teams; it's almost always a preponderance of simple failures: failing to define goals clearly, failing to identify errors and resolve them, failing to solve problems at their root, or failing to communicate with colleagues or customers. Lean knowledge targets these sorts of failures.

1.1.1 Dangerous assumptions

Assumptions, as we will use the term here, are unvalidated conclusions that form a foundation for action. Our lives demand assumptions. I’m going to assume my car will start tomorrow morning. This assumption is not a deeply held conviction. I know there likely will be a morning when my car doesn't start. But tonight, I'm not taking any actions to validate (such as asking a mechanic to look at it) or creating any countermeasures (such as arranging for a friend to pick me up). I'll act as if my assumption is true and deal with the problem if it presents. I'll also assume that the road system will function well enough to get me to work. That my card key will open the building door. These and a hundred other assumptions are necessary just to start the workday.
We must make many assumptions just to function at home and at work. The problem is that some of those assumptions in the complex domains of knowledge work are going to be wrong—not dead wrong, but wrong enough to create a great deal of waste. Some of the most dangerous assumptions are among the most common:
  • This is how we've always done it and it works fine.
  • Someone I trust told me, so I don't need to see it myself.
  • It seems logical, so it probably works.
  • It's not working because other people are not trying hard enough.
So how often are our assumptions wrong? In the routine parts of life, it may be rare. I don't remember the last time my car didn't start. But assumptions about knowledge work are different. A small misunderstanding of a customer's need or a problem's root cause can render a large effort entirely wasteful. Quantifying how often our assumptions are wrong is difficult, so let's defer to Taiichi Ohno, the creator of the Toyota Production System and one of the first lean thinkers. The opening of this chapter quoted him as saying the wisest of us is right only 7 out of 10 times. Put simply, at least 30% of our assumptions are wrong.

1.1.2 The dilemma of lean knowledge

This is the dilemma of lean knowledge. You must make assumptions to function, but many of those assumptions will be wrong and you have no idea which ones. You understand most when you realize there's much you don't understand. The height of poor understanding is to think you understand everything. Or, as Ohno is often quoted, “having no problems is the biggest problem ...

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