The importance identifying threats and opportunities and then quickly making necessary changes / improvements was discussed in our previous post, which defined this competency as organization agility.
An equally important component of sustaining a culture of improvement and change is the pursuit of knowledge. To develop new insights, new solutions, new opportunities for competitive advantage, we must actively mine for knowledge that can trigger solutions. In other words, learning can become a catalyst for change.
Here are five key areas in which this knowledge can be accessed:
- Learn from the work. The most important knowledge of all is knowledge of your own value stream — he set of activities that move the value from your suppliers through your operations to your customers. Know it in detail — how long it takes, where it piles up, how well it is synchronized with the needs of the customers. In most organizations, there is a knowledge barrier that holds the waste in place: the people who know the work best are seldom in a position to know the big picture so when they see waste, they often assume there must be a reason for it. And if they know of better ways of doing something, they often lack the influence to make any significant changes. And those with the broader perspective and the influence do not really understand how the work as it is done today well enough to arrive at the ‘Eureka!’ moment. One of the fundamentals of the Lean approach is that you must “go to the work.” Don’t just talk about the results or listen to people talk about the work — go to the work. Look at the work, and learn from the people who do it every day. Without this knowledge, little can be substantially improved.
- Learn from the marketplace. A prime example of learning from the market took place in the early 1980’s when Toyota believed that, to grow their sales in the United States, they would need to have manufacturing facilities here. But they concluded they did not have enough knowledge to do so successfully. So, they entered into a joint venture with General Motors opening the NUMMI plant in California to produce both the Chevy Nova and the Toyota Corolla in the United States. Having achieved their learning goals, Toyota went on to open plants in Alabama, Kentucky, Indiana and more. General Motors had the opportunity to learn the production systems that enabled Toyota to produce very high-quality product with low cost. Indeed, many individuals at GM learned a great deal through this venture. But in keeping with the practice of gathering knowledge by chance and then leaving it where it lies, GM gained little more from the venture than the cars that came off the assembly line.
- Learn from customers. Customers may tell you what they want, but not necessarily why. What do they really value? How do they use or struggle to use what you give them? What are the things that you could do differently that the customers would not know to ask? They don’t ask because they know enough about your process to suggest it and you don’t know enough about their process to offer it. Contextual inquiry is a method of learning more about the customer needs than the customer could tell you by watching the customer use the product in context. It has been used by some software developers and systems designers for a number of years. But it can be used in many other circumstances. The staff of an assisted living facility was able to eliminate almost half the forms in the move-in process by spending time with the departments requesting the forms to really understand how and why they were used. With the new understanding, they were able to design a much simpler and less error-prone move-in process that also perfectly met the needs of the accounting, facilities, and medical departments as well.
- Learn from the competition. In his book, “Benchmarking: The Search for Industry Best Practices,” Robert Camp described a methodology to learn and apply better ways of doing things by identifying and studying the best. His is a rigorous and time-consuming methodology, and companies must choose the most important aspects of their work to compare and try to improve. In addition to benchmarking, there are a number of quick and inexpensive ways to mine competitive information. Visiting competitors’ websites can increase knowledge and generate ideas about how you might leapfrog them by combining the best of the competitors with your own best capabilities and offerings. Visiting the competitor as a customer can also tell you a great deal about their customer service and how you can improve your own. The manager of a loan processing and underwriting group went to a competitor to apply for an auto loan — and was astonished at their speed and quality. This learning experience changed his mindset: “We were processing loans as fast as we can. Now I know we have to process them as fast as they can!”
- Learn from the world at large. What is going on in technology? What methods are others trying out? How is it working for them? How could it work for you? In the mid-20th century, Toyota noticed that Ford auto workers were nine times as efficient as those at the Toyota plants. So, they sent Taiichi Ohno to study the Ford processes. Ohno concluded, however, that the capital-intensive Ford production model could not be applied to the Japanese automobile company. Nonetheless, Ohno continued to search for ideas for improvements. On one study mission, Ohno watched the bread replenishment system in a Midwestern grocery store and saw how he could adapt this method to make cars with low capital requirements. The Toyota Production System was conceived — a breakthrough achieved!