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Alethea McIntosh

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Making your business a lean, mean, people machine

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In shaky economic times organisations naturally look for ways to stabilise and recently there’s been a strong resurgence in ‘lean’ business management. But, argues Alethea McIntosh, principal consultant at Berkshire Consultancy, the ultimate success of this efficiency-driven model depends not on standardising process but in understanding people, and more specifically diversity.

In business, ‘technical’ issues can’t be separated from ‘people’ issues. For organisational change to be effective and sustainable it must be part of the company’s culture: enough of your team must buy-in, participate in and be the engine of change for it to work.

To understand why your organisation’s diversity is critical to adding value to your customers and your company, we must understand what we mean by ‘the lean process’ and ‘diversity’ in this context.

Lean times
In a nutshell, lean aims to ‘do more with less’. The lean business model is about creating a virtuous ‘value-adding’ circle: a continual commitment from everyone at all levels to standardise processes to reduce costs and maximise performance.

Central to the process is a dialogue between the business and the customer about what they really need and want. The business uses this information to define regular processes and to reduce the overall cost of doing them. This in turn makes the company much more effective.

It’s important to recognise that this is not a subversive way of identifying where people can be let go, but a way to pinpoint where cost-savings can be reinvested to add most long-term value to the organisation and its customers.

What is diversity?
Here, diversity means appreciating the differences inherent in all employees: to recognise and to draw on the varied talents, experiences, skills and knowledge of individuals to achieve overarching organisational goals.   

The lean machine

Most businesses don’t pay enough attention to their people when managing change. Systems and processes are more easily defined and measured but it’s the people that ultimately affect success or failure in the longer term.

This is especially true when adopting a lean model as lean is not a set of tools but rather a perspective – a continuing commitment to understand what’s really happening at each stage of the business so processes can be improved.

The individuals in your team bring a unique set of strengths, enabling you to tailor the solution and interaction between people, processes and systems to fit your organisation and improve your performance in a sustainable way.

Initially, heavy standardisation and diversity appear to be diametrically opposed: for example, how do codified processes allow the free-thinking individualism and ideas that a truly diverse organisation entails?

The answer is that working in a lean and diverse way challenges complacent thinking within organisations and amongst customers. It enables products and services to be developed through the efficient use of resources and better practices.

Building equality and diversity best practice principles into the lean approach enables staff to have greater control over their work environment and a sense that they have contributed towards achieving outcomes irrespective of whether these are at unit, team, departmental or organisational levels. In effect, it makes people perform. 
Equality legislation may seek to redress imbalances in treatment faced by minority groups, but by embracing diversity organisations can work out how to develop effective dialogue with both their internal and external stakeholders to demonstrate value to the customer. Areas to consider include:

  • The value stream

The activities necessary to deliver a product or services to customers; encompassing problem solving, managing information and the design and delivery of service.  

The challenge is to identify what activities bring real value and what are wasteful. Within lean, two types of waste exist: avoidable and unavoidable. Stifling your team’s innovation, creativity and contribution is an avoidable waste. 

  • The flow

Flow is the effective communication between employees and the way this adds value to the efficient design and delivery of products and services. It’s about adopting a more holistic approach to communication, relationships and culture that appreciates the difference a diverse workforce brings. 

This enables organisations to set realistic objectives; to encourage the valuing of people, to overcome barriers through effective communication and to stimulate formal and informal support networks.    
 
Moving forward
Perfection in lean systems means improvement never ends: as businesses strive in this uncertain economic environment, they will continue to seek out ways of achieving objectives through responsive processes and systems that encourage and empower staff to perform at their most efficient. The most forward-thinking of these recognise that equality and diversity are integral to a flourishing lean standardisation.

Alethea McIntosh is principal consultant at Berkshire Consultancy Limited (www.berkshire.co.uk) – management consultants specialising in people-led performance improvement.

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