Feb 11 2014

I went to a networking event last week & the speaker’s topic was innovation. I enjoyed the talk & there were some solid messages within it. However, there was one comment/remark that I took umbrage to, the guy said “innovation over OpEx” or at least his slide did, I can’t remember his exact words but they were something along the lines of innovation is needed to succeed in business today, Lean is good but will only get you so far.

Now to a certain extent I can see where he is coming from, even my Operations professor on my MBA program said that lean wasn’t enough, everyone was doing it & therefore it is a necessity, not a differentiator. To differentiate your operation, you need to innovate. Maybe this guy had sat in the same lecture in his MBA & heard the same message.

Here’s my issue though, from a tool perspective, they were both absolutely right, but lean is not about tools, the tools are merely solutions to problems. True lean, based on principles, is about solving problems & finding new ways of working, new solutions to age old problems, new solutions to new problems. These new solutions are often innovative!

The gist of lean, at least the way I look at it, should be about 4 things; making problems obvious, solving problems quickly, Sharing the new knowledge widely and then leaders developing their people to do the first 3.

There are lots of tools that can be used to make problems obvious, to solve problems, to share knowledge; kanbans, visual management, kamishibai, yamazumi, etc… But these are tools, they are not what lean is about – the tools are not really any different then a hammer or a screw driver. You use them when appropriate, to solve the problems that have been solved before with that tool. When faced with new problems, you may need new tools. Sometimes the “standard tool” will not solve your problem, or it needs to be modified, improved or made to suit your operation – you need to be innovative with it!

By having your people, and I mean all of them, engaged in those 1st three aspects (See, Solve, Share) then you have an army of problem solvers & the solutions will often be innovative, you will come up with new ways to operate, new products, new tools, new equipment designs etc…these can be from other businesses, industries or completely new to the planet – they can be and often are innovative.

So I say that one should not compare lean to innovation. They say Lean is a journey, not a destination (like life and very cliché) but this is because it is not a specific design or recipe for your operation, it is a way of engaging people to focus on solving problems, reducing wasted activity & coming up with new ways to work – innovating  & creating new processes, new products, new structures etc…

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(2) Readers Comments


  1. Rob Munro
    March 4, 2014 at 7:40 PM

    Hi Cordell - I'm that Guy! Pleased you got a great blog peice out of it; but please don't misunderstand my point - sorry for the umbrige - I'll certainly think about how better to say it next time. Lean thinking has had a long and accomplished career in helping firms become operationally excellent and in driving out waste. Also, I didn't imply that Lean doesn't innovate. But the essence of the point is that many companies have persued this as a sole strategy and neglected to create The New and now, don't know how to. This is also coming home in the EU's innovation status report out today that you might get a kick out of. And I wouldn't advocate an either or Lean v Innovate in the red/blue corner. PS I was admiring your website when I drawn to your blog... Cheers.

    • Cordell Hensley
      March 9, 2014 at 1:52 PM

      Yes Rob, it was you! As discussed I knew what you meant, and in many ways agreed with your intent. Too many companies think only of the tools & of production. They don't look at it as a way of doing business, of identifying & solving problems often in innovative ways...

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