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In the 20 Mile March of your Lean Journey, it’s OK to Stop to Catch Your Breath

I don’t know what it’s been like in your company since the Covid-19 pandemic started but in ours we’ve been busier than we’ve ever been. On top of this we’ve faced challenges we haven’t faced before and find ourselves scrambling just to keep up.

It’s been hard to keep the momentum of regular improvement culture moving. Not only because everyone is busy and distracted….and busy. But also because it’s hard to get motivated to drive improvement when you are struggling to keep your head above water on the day to day.

But does a slow down in improvement activities herald the decline of the whole system, or are we just taking a break on the side of the track on the long road to perfection?

One of my senior team members reminded me the other day that while we might not be working specifically on the systemic improvements we would like to, as a team we have had to find ways to get more production out of our plant. By default, we have improved processes and systems to do so. It’s not tidy, pretty or even that organized but it is a step forwards, even if it is an unexpected detour.

In addition, our team members are still working on and documenting improvements to their processes. Not as many, and no one is as focused but we still have momentum.

In ‘Great by Choice’, Jim Collins – who is also the author of the ground-breaking book ‘Good to Great’, discusses the concept of the ’20 Mile March’. A 20 Mile March is where you plan to make a certain amount of progress in business or life, year on year, regardless of the environment. The concept acknowledges that it is unlikely that we will make the same degree of progress every year, booms, recessions and pandemics will see to that. What does happen over time is that progress total progress continues to grow. For example, and average of 15% growth year on year, ultimately becomes exponential. In any of the progress graphs in ‘Great by Choice’ we see ups and downs, like the Southwest Airline example below. In the long run, maintaining this progress, exponential growth is inevitable.

Great by Choice – Collins & Hansen 2011 Copyright Jim Collins 2011

The important concept of the 20 Mile March is that the aim is to maintain the pace, to not deliberately go below or exceed it. If you want to get into the detail of how and why this works then reading ‘Great by Choice’ is the next step.

When I looked at our company’s lean progress in terms of a 20 Mile March, it became clear that while I had set a goal to achieve progress each year, I had an expectation that the next year’s progress would exceed the current year’s progress every year, year on year without failure. I built this assumption on the fact that this is what had happened consistently for the previous five years. I didn’t think about what would happen in a year where business growth exceeded the targets set for the company’s overall 20 Mile March and how that might affect the progress in improvement activities and the development of lean culture. One of the reasons we try to maintain steady, not excessive growth is because it can impact the stability of our processes in a negative way if they are not properly supported.

As a company, we stick to the 20 Mile March because we know that exceeding our planned growth exceeds the capacity of our infrastructure and ultimately growth becomes unsustainable if we can’t keep up. Our annual planning processes are designed to maintain growth at a controllable level. In a year like 2020, where growth is unprecedented, all our systems are scrambling to keep up, including our lean activities.

Does this mean that we have stopped caring about lean, that we have abandoned our ideals or principles? Not at all. We still avoid batching like the plague, we still manage our processes with as little bureaucracy as possible. We still intend to ‘Make Tomorrow what we Sold Today’. It’s just that our progress has slowed down.

The only difference is that we feel like we’re not doing enough.

I’ve always been skeptical of ‘the perfect’ lean company. You know, the ones with all the pristine KPI boards, an Obeya room, Value Stream Maps on the wall and an entire department of ‘lean people.’ To be perfectly honest, such companies always make me feel inferior, like I’m not doing lean ‘properly’.

I suspect though, that this is the wrong yardstick to measure by. Real lean is messy, time consuming, boring and rewarding all at the same time and the journey is endless. The mark of lean practitioners in a successful lean company is the quiet but relentless focus on the elimination of waste in all its forms and a stubborn refusal to quit.

When looked at from this perspective it doesn’t seem unreasonable to be able to sit down and take a breather before beginning the long march again.

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