Lean and Your True North
Over the last 10 or 12 years the term "True North", sometimes referred to as "North Star" has gradually become more of a talking point in lean circles. Now it's is increasingly cropping up in conversations around NZ lean and continuous improvement circles as well. So what is "True North", how can you find it, communicate it and use it and should you actually bother with it at all!?
It's Not Part of the TPS History
Firstly, for what it's worth when Taiichi Ohno and his team were developing their fledgling Toyota Production System (what we basically call lean now) at no point did they talk about True North, it just wasn't a thing for them. Their focus was all about what adds value to the customer, how do you get flow, reduce defects and so on. Their focus was on the 'ideal situation' or "aru beki sugata" which roughly translates (I'm told) to "ideally the way things should be". You could argue then that perhaps "True North" reflects this, which is I guess an option but personally, I don't think that it's enough
If you stop for a minute and remind yourself about why you are on your lean journey what sparked that first step. It was the realisation that you and your organisation could be better than you are today. You had an image in your mind perhaps of what your organisation could look like in this ideal situation. So far so good, but is it enough to just think about how your organisation could flow products better, how you could increase your quality, reduce defects, have processes that add only value and teams that learn and improve every day? As fantastic as that image should be to you, again I'm going to suggest it's not enough.
Here is my rational, and I guess it links back to a previous post when I suggested that continuous improvement isn't always continuous improvement if it's not actually aligned to adding value to your organisation or your customer. I'm going to add something more here. What is the point of focusing on an improvement if it doesn't ultimately move your organisation closer to your company mission and vision?
Think about it this way, lean isn't a set of tools, it's a learning system, in fact, it's more than that, it's a business operating system that you choose to use. You choose the system as a way to achieve your organisation's mission at the lowest possible cost with the highest quality.
So back to the original question, what is your true north? Your organisations True North is the end point of its mission, they have to be the same thing or you create confusion and division in your focus. Why would you remotely set out on a journey that deviates from where you want to get to as an organisation and dilute the impact your team can have on the results? You wouldn't!
Aligning lean with your mission
If, as an organisation then, you haven't developed an appealing vision for your organisation, if you don't have a mission that you are trying to achieve, somewhere you want to get to then there is no journey and you need to stop and spend time here. Your Mission gives everyone a clear focal point and a barometer to use when reviewing the multitude of suggestions of improvement items you will get from your team. It lets you ensure that the investment you are going to make as part of the continuous improvement journey lines up with your strategic focus.
How will you communicate this? If you haven't already communicated your vision & mission for the organisation over say the next 5 years then that's your task. Remember you are painting a picture of a better future, it's not about numbers and facts it's about emotions and feelings! That's what you need to cast your pitch towards, everything else will fail. As you make your pitch for the future state of the organisation you can outline that you are choosing lean as your method for achieving this end goal. Everything you do from now on will be aligned with achieving the ultimate goal you have set out as part of the vision & mission.
Like all journeys, getting from A to B is quite a lot of a trip to do in one step so you need to break it down into say 5 steps with different targets per year that you can achieve and celebrate. You may even go to 6 monthly targets, it doesn't matter. It's about moving you towards the ultimate goal of achieving your mission, of reaching your True North. Of course you never truly reach there because as you grow, improve and learn more you quickly realise that the targets you set for yourself at the start are no longer enough, you can do better than that. With agreement and lots of communication you will move the end point of your mission.. just far enough for it to be just over the next hill.
Lean is about the journey and the learning that you get as part of that journey. It's an operating system for your organisation, it's the culture you create as part of the learnings and the journey. Don't get distracted by buzz word terms, if you want to reference a "true North" make it your company Mission, that's what you are driving towards. If you want to take your people with you on the mission make sure it connects with them emotionally, that it taps into the pride they will feel on achieving it and in being able to learn something new and, more importantly pass that new learning on to the next person in your organisation who needs to learn it. Step by Step you will move towards the goal of your mission, to your "True North"
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