Thursday, March 29, 2012

Lean Principles and Developing Instruction - Rooting out Waste

I'd heard about "lean principles" in the context of a manufacturing environment, and one thing I can tell you is that developing instruction is not very much like manufacturing. So I didn't really think of how I could apply lean principles to the work of my department when I was considering how we might improve our productivity. But my instructional designer, Allison, pointed out an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review from October 2011 titled, Applying "Lean" Principles to Knowledge Work, by Bradley R Staats and David M. Upton.

I'm a huge, huge fan of the HBR. I've subscribed for years, and month in and month out there is something interesting in it that has helped me be a better manager, or has validated something I was doing instinctively. And this article couldn't have come at a better time.

Here's a definition of "lean" from Wikipedia:
Lean manufacturing, lean enterprise, or lean production, often simply, "Lean," is a production practice that considers the expenditure of resources for any goal other than the creation of value for the end customer to be wasteful, and thus a target for elimination. Working from the perspective of the customer who consumes a product or service, "value" is defined as any action or process that a customer would be willing to pay for.
Staats and Upton start by acknowledging how difficult it might be to apply lean principles to knowledge work. They state, "Most in the business world believe that knowledge work doesn't lend itself to lean principals because, unlike car assembly, it is not repetitive and can't be unambiguously defined. ...The work involves expertise and judgement that depends heavily on tacit knowledge - knowledge locked inside the worker's head."

Indeed, this is true. Frequently, when I've developed business skills or design content, both of which rely on principal based content, I hear from subject matter experts that the content "can't be taught." My reply is that difficult to do is not the same as impossible.  And because I have figured out the parts that repeat, that don't involve judgement or expertise, I can use those as a framework for the other parts of the content. 

The article suggests six things to do to incorporate "lean" into knowledge work. In this post, I'll discuss the first: Rooting out waste.

The first item dealt with rooting out waste. There are seven sources of waste:
a.     Overproduction
b.     Unnecessary transportation
c.      Unnecessary inventory
d.     Unnecessary worker motion
e.     Defects
f.      Over-processing
g.     Waiting
When I read "overproduction" I think about content where everything but the kitchen sink has been included. I frequently see what amounts to a "brain dump" coming from subject matter experts. This is not good instruction, and it's not Lean either. Instead, if the project team has a well-crafted design document, where every item included contributes to the mission of the course (instead of just being in there because the SME happens to know it), the instruction is more targeted and no overproduction is taking place. 

"Unnecessary transportation" and "Unnecessary inventory" also seem like they would have much to do with developing training materials. But instead of thinking of transportation as shipping, instead think of it as how content is moved from one part of the process to the next. How does the editor and QA know it's time to get to work on a lesson? Is content in a centralized location? Or being moved about in emails?

"Inventory" could refer to out of date courses that no one has taken the time to delete from lists of offerings, so students have to scroll past them. It could refer to printing courses that could be delivered on screen or online. 

The point is, you will need to read the list with a open mind, thinking less literally, perhaps, and find the places where you can root out waste in your own process. And this is an ongoing process, not something that is done once and for all.



Dong Henze said...

I totally agree that the lean method brings out the best in every company or organization that uses it. Could you imagine that something a car manufacturing company have used can actually be applied to hospitals or households alike? Overproduction and defects are some of the most common reasons for having wastes that reduces value given to customers. I'm happy to learn that more and more companies and individuals are being exposed into this methodology.

Dong Henze

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