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This is Lean

I just finished reading This is Lean by Niklas Modig & Pär Åhlström. Lean is a word that is floating around a lot, and that ties into agile, but before this book I hadn’t read any greater attempt at defining it or tracing the lineage of the ideas.

I’m convinced that I have worked with people that have been influenced by these ideas and I’m also convinced that these ideas has helped shape agile. Although I’ve in this way been in contact with Lean, I still found things that I learned while reading the book.

One of the main ideas of the book is to distinguish between something being “Resource Efficient” as compared to “Flow Efficient”. The idea of resource efficient is that whatever resources you have (your employees, expensive equipment etc.) should be utilized as much as possible, this way you are running an efficient company. This feels like a natural heuristic when tackling problems, I mean if you have full resource efficiency then there is no more work that you can squeeze out of your workforce. To contrast this the concept of flow efficiency is presented. This is a concept where instead of looking at how well we’re using the time of our resources, we instead focus on how well we are using the time for our customers. A flow efficient system tries to optimize the speed in which a customer can have their needs satisfied. Sounds abstract?

The book uses a really good example to present the ideas. It compares two women that wants to verify if they have breast cancer or not. Anyone that has been interacting with more complicated health care procedures will likely have experience of resource efficiency. Although the doctors and the MRI equipment etc. are all used to their full capacity it can take weeks if not months for you before you have passed through all necessary checkpoints to get your diagnosis. This is again contrasted with a flow efficient system where instead of making sure that the doctor is occupied all the time, there is an effort to make sure that you get through the system quickly.

One might wonder (especially if you are a health care official) which of these systems are more economical. I can’t give an answer to that and I don’t think Niklas or Pär attempts that either, but they point out that for resource efficient systems you sometimes create secondary work which makes sure that everyone is busy, but which brings little value. In the case of the cancer patient it’s expected that the patient will experience a lot of distress during their waiting time. It’s also expected that they’ll call into the hospital from time to time. Because it’s an open investigation it will require some extra effort, simply by being open.

From here springs the idea. Focus on the flow instead, focus on making sure your customer gets what they want in a way that’s appropriate and makes all people satisfied.

Lean as a philosophy has sprung out of Toyota, and what the authors spend quite some time explaining is that Lean is not to be understood as a static set of practices. Lean is rather to be understood as an effort of continuous improvement. It’s an attempt to have an organization where every part of the organization is aligned on values and intelligent and empowered to identify and handle issues that arise.

My take on the philosophy and the ideas of this book is that they make sense and are worthwhile working with. I find the book is written to the point and is easy to understand. I also like how the book puts emphasis on the fact that lean is not a static destination you reach, it’s a constant process you take part in.