Industry Insight | Take the hard road!

Harvey Leach headshot

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1 min read

One of my greatest frustrations is how few UK manufacturing organisations seem to embrace operational excellence/lean or similar approaches in a way that is successful over the long haul. Indeed, how many have never really got started and are still working the same way they have done for years?

Many of them are doing OK. They have a distinctive product or service, a loyal customer base or have somehow managed to stay cheaper than the competition. If not, they’d probably have gone under by now.

But how long will that last? Brexit or not, trade agreements or not, reshoring or not, somewhere the competition is getting better and more will need to be done to maintain or grow their business. Customers want products more quickly, to ever more demanding specifications and at lower cost. If that hasn’t got to you yet, it almost certainly will.

So what do you do about it? Studies of sustainable successful companies like Toyota have shown that some form of an “operational excellence” approach is at the core of the way they run their business, so why is it not more widely and successfully applied?

The reasons are widely rehearsed. LinkedIn is full of threads unpacking them. Treating it as a set of tools, simply copying without understanding and adapting, leadership not engaged, not addressing the people side. The list goes on.

However, if I had to pick one, it would be summed up in a quote that went something like this;“Managers will keep trying the quick and easy things that won’t work before they’ll tackle the one hard thing that will!”

Lean, operational excellence, continuous improvement – call it what you will – takes a long term commitment at a whole organisation level, and that’s hard.

There seems to be something about the UK that’s generally looking for the “quick fix” and has a short term perspective notably absent from, for example, Japan and Germany. This works very much against taking such a long-term approach.

It’s “easy” to say we must adopt that hard road of thinking for the long-term and set that short-term mentality aside. But that’s hard, so it won’t work! At least not easily – it’s maybe too big an ask given the prevailing culture.

So the “hard” answer is to find a way forward that combines both. To recognise that there are very real short-term pressures on leaders and it’s not that they don’t “get it”. So can we take relatively easy short-term action that is supportive of the longer-term perspective; lots of small steps in a consistent direction?

My experience of lean is that many of its approaches can be used to achieve significant results in a relatively short time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, those actions need to be set in a longer term, organisation-wide context that builds a real culture of operational excellence to continue delivering improvements in a sustainable way. Put these together and we have a way forward.

I’m currently reading “Chasing the Moon”, the story of the first years of the US space programme, and was reminded of John F. Kennedy’s words:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

Inspirational! A clear, long term vision that galvanised the efforts of a nation for a decade, yet one that compelled immediate action and a series of short-term wins leading to that final “one small step”.

If the last 15 months have taught us anything, it’s that the UK can do great things when it puts its mind to it – the ventilator challenge and the vaccination programme to name but two. So let’s put that energy to work to deliver both short-term gains and long-term sustainability.

Remember Lao Tzu; “the longest journey begins with a single step!”



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