Management And Accounting Web

Staats, B. R. and D. M. Upton. 2011. Lean knowledge work: The "Toyota" principles can also be effective in operations involving judgment and expertise. Harvard Business Review (October): 100-110.

Summary by James R. Martin, Ph.D., CMA
Professor Emeritus, University of South Florida

Just-In-Time and Lean Enterprise Main Page | Knowledge Management Main Page

The purpose of this paper is to describe six principles for making knowledge operations lean. The principles are based on the authors multiyear field research mainly related to Wipro Technologies, an IT services and product engineering company with 100,000 employees and 72 delivery centers in 55 countries.

The main idea is that knowledge work does not have to be tacit. Systems and rules can be applied to guide workers activities and interactions to create faster response times, higher quality and creativity, lower costs, and greater job satisfaction. Although converting to a lean operation takes years to accomplish, the potential benefits in time and costs are substantial. A brief  discussion of the six principles is provided below.

1. Everyone Should Continually Root Out and Remove Waste

The authors mention seven types of waste identified by Toyota's Taiichi Ohno. These include overproduction; unnecessary transportation, inventory, and worker motion; defects; over processing; and waiting. Rooting out waste involves identifying waste and making it visible. A useful waste identifying and correcting technique is referred to as "the five whys"1. Everyone needs to continually ask why am I doing this? Why am I doing it this way? Why did this problem occur? And continue asking why until the cause of the problem is identified and corrected. Every employee should look for all forms of waste, large and small. Value stream mapping is another useful technique for identifying waste. The idea is to map each step in a process or project in detail and ask why did we do that? In addition, the content and structure of every job should be periodically reviewed to remove "task creep" that can cause bottlenecks, excessive switching between tasks, missed deadlines, and eventually employee burnout.

How do you make Knowledge Work Lean?

2. Strive to Make Tacit Knowledge Explicit

Although knowledge work tends to be more difficult to specify than work performed on a production line, much of it can be defined in terms of substance, order, timing, and desired result. This requires four steps. Identify repeatable parts of the process and arrange them systematically. Don't try to specify tasks that are rarely performed. Use data to get knowledge workers acceptance that much of their work can be made explicit. Keep studying the tasks that are viewed as tacit. A lot of complicated work can be specified over time to provide a knowledge organization with continuous disciplined learning.

3. Structure How Workers Should Communicate with Each Other

Specify who will use each workers output, and how and what should be communicated between workers. One communications aid or technique is referred to as design structure matrix (DSM) where relationships between team members are defined and ranked using matrix algebra. Communications systems also need to be designed so that all members of a team in various geographical, cultural, and functional areas share an understanding of the work to be done. In addition, disagreements need to be resolved with facts, not opinions. Common standards should be used in evaluating the work performed so that errors are precisely defined.

4. Use the Scientific Method to Solve Problems Quickly at the Source

The scientific method is referred to as a problem solving engine and involves developing an explicit, measurable and testable hypothesis, objectively testing the hypothesis with data, and if the hypothesis is supported, standardizing the approach. Problems should be solved by the person closest to the problem, when it occurs, where it occurs, and as soon as possible.

5. Recognize that a Lean System is a Long Term Work in Progress

Start by applying lean concepts to pilot projects codifying the lessons learned as you go. Continually look for new ways to apply lean approaches to repetitive tasks, but recognize that lean concepts are not always applicable. For example, where innovation is the goal, the time needed to develop and test ideas should not be viewed as waste.

6. Leaders must Blaze the Trail to Transform the Organization into a Lean Enterprise

A lean enterprise creates bottom-up improvement, but project and midlevel managers are responsible for training and motivating team members. In addition, senior level leaders must be long-term champions who support the move to a lean operation with the needed investment in training, process development and necessary cultural change. Transforming a knowledge based organization into a lean enterprise is difficult, but it can be done and provides a competitive advantage that is hard to replicate.


1 See Martin, J. R. Not dated. Five Whys examples. Management And Accounting Web.

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