The Lean philosophy can help maintain the organisational resilience needed to thrive in an uncertain world, says Tanya Hulse, managing director of business improvement consulting firm Training Leadership Consulting (TLC). Speaking at a recent Lean Forum hosted by the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business, Hulse said businesses faced unprecedented change, in what business leaders increasingly refer to as a “vuca” world. The notion of vuca was first used to describe the more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world which resulted after the Cold War, though it is only in the past two decades that the term has been adopted by business leaders to describe the chaotic business environment that has become the “new normal”.
Hulse, an engineer who has spent 25 years working in the world of multinational corporates, is well versed in production management, process optimisation and capability development, within South Africa and globally. “Being able to adapt is crucial to survive. We have to change in many different spheres – there’s the impact of policy uncertainty due to political volatility, economic curveballs like currency fluctuations and a potential trade war, accelerating technology advances including the Fourth Industrial revolution, and then also rapidly changing social and cultural norms,” she said. While the term “resilience” might imply just an ability to survive adversity, in business terms it captures the ability to bounce back stronger after hard times. But for businesses to weather vuca times, they must build resilience by focusing on purpose and vision, culture, people, processes and fitness.
“The Lean philosophy has been around for a while, with some of its principles grounded in breakthroughs dating back more than a century,” said Hulse. Lean is a way of thinking that transcends the nuts and bolts of tools. “A clear purpose provides people with a sense of connection to something greater than themselves, and to others who share this common purpose. Leadership is crucial to communicate this and live the spirit of it – which goes far beyond merely selling goods and services. Lean is based on clarity of purpose in understanding customers’ real needs and how to meet or exceed them.”
A culture founded on the values of trust and respect was crucial for resilience. “It allows people to engage in effective problem-solving and innovation as a way to tackle challenges and become ‘change-ready’. These are core tenets in Lean.” However, establishing teams of people whose values and aspirations align to the business’s purpose and culture can be tough.
“Lean seeks to empower people to take ownership of workplace issues and solve them – to develop technical and leadership skills, and teamwork. People with some control over their work environment are less defensive at the prospect of change.” Hulse said if internal business processes and systems were bureaucratic, rigid or obscure, the business would struggle to deal with change. “Lean’s role here is clear: streamlined, transparent processes can be changed more quickly and accurately than convoluted ones.”
Hulse referred to companies that have thrived after successful Lean transformations, quoting examples where lead times reduced from more than four weeks to less than two days, errors to customers were reduced by 90% and turnaround on overdue accounts improved by more than 70%, all of which provide an invaluable buffer in times of volatility.
“For companies wondering how to become more resilient and agile, Lean provides a proven yet flexible roadmap for the journey, regardless of industry sector.”