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Lean: your life raft in a sea of uncertainty


February 1, 2018

Hardly a day goes by when we don’t hear a piece of conflicting news about the economy.  Manufacturing is growing strongly, apart from in the car market where it’s in steady decline; inflation has peaked, depending on who you ask; commodities are rising sharply in price but the bottom might be about to fall out of the oil market… You’d be forgiven for feeling as though we’re riding a never-ending rollercoaster. The one constant, in our view, is the ever-pressing need for a Lean life raft in a world of such uncertainty.

Productivity must prevail

When conditions are so turbulent and the future so unpredictable, the importance of focusing on efficiency and productivity cannot be overstated.  As Aberdeen Standard Investments’ chief economist Lucy O’Carroll recently commented, “What matters most for the long-term health of the UK economy is improving its productivity performance… But on recent experience, improving productivity is much easier said than done.”

When it comes to productivity, the news is also mixed. After a decade of sluggishness, productivity grew by an unexpected 0.9% in the three months to September 2017.  However, quoted in The Guardian on 5 January, Philip Shaw, chief economist at Investec, said, “I’d take one quarter’s numbers with a pinch of salt. It’s not at all bad news but difficult to embrace as a big change just yet, in what is a disappointing history since [the financial] crisis.”

Back to Lean basics

The principles of Lean start with customer needs, and what customers want – broadly – is steady prices and reliable quality. With so many macro and micro variables outside of your control which can so easily affect your ability to satisfy these basic drivers, Lean puts the power back into your hands.

Regardless of how long you’ve been doing Lean, going back to basics is a very useful way of sense-checking that your efforts are giving you maximum return. It can be easy to lose sight of the need to satisfy customers’ demands when you’re caught up in the process, and it’s also important to recognise that granular customer needs aren’t constant. They too are being buffeted by the winds of change, so stay close to them to ensure you’re well-placed to react quickly (and ideally anticipate) their requirements, without passing on costs.

Invest in employee relations

Good internal relations is vital during times of change too. When corporate transparency and workplace equality are at the top of the news agenda, there is clear room for improvement in internal relations in the UK.  According to the recent Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI), we lag significantly behind other countries in this regard. Specifically, it suggests that “by creating a truly diverse and inclusive corporate culture, companies can gain a competitive advantage that will enable them to not just better attract and retain talent, but create a high performing workforce.”

An unsettled and distracted workforce can be hugely damaging so make sure that you invest in employee communication. Two-way dialogue, cross-functional working and feedback loops at all levels of your organisation will create a more cohesive, effective and productive team.

If in doubt, call for help

It’s understandable to feel a little overwhelmed in the current circumstances, so if you’re struggling to keep your Lean project afloat it may be that bringing in a Lean consultant could be the lifeline you need. Some external perspective, plus the specialist skills of a proven trouble-shooter can be a quick and effective way of renewing your sense of purpose and rejuvenating your Lean mission at a critical point.

I’m always happy to provide advice and practical support in such circumstances, so please do pick up the phone (+44 (0)7583 149243) or drop me a line ([email protected]) if I can assist.

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