Following on from our series of blogs on operations management, I’ve been diving deeper into the topic and specifically how I can apply it to my own work. This deeper dive has brought me to a book called The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.
In this book Eric takes the lean manufacturing approach developed by Toyota (and now followed by many companies) and applies it to the way companies are built and new products are launched.
One of the specific approaches of Toyota and Lean manufacturing is doing work in small batches. The advantages of working in small batches include that quality problems can be identified much sooner and more cost effectively. Also producing in smaller batches means that you can get the finished product to the customer faster, enabling them to validate it and provide feedback that you can then use to improve the product. This entertaining five-minute video gives a great overview of this concept. In particular, it highlights the envelope-stuffing example whereby stuffing envelopes one by one is weirdly faster than doing one step at a time such as folding the all of the letters.
In my organisation we have followed a traditional approach in developing new products or feature. We begin with designing the new product or feature, validating the design with users, developing it, testing it (both internally and with a small number of users) and then launching it (see the figure below). For example, if the product is a new feature on an existing online platform. In this case, the scientist designs the feature in detail and scopes it out in a detailed report. This report is then reviewed by a user and another scientist. Once approved it is passed to the software developer. The scientist is free to turn his or her attention to the next project. This is the large batch approach. However, what happens when the software developer has questions about how the feature is supposed to work? What if some of the scope is unclear? What if something goes wrong when the software developer attempts to build the feature? These problems inevitably turn into interruptions for the whole project team.
Eric Ries advocates the small batch approach to ensure that problems like these don’t arise. This approach is where a small part of the whole product (i.e. the smallest, viable, stand-alone part) is designed, developed, and shipped to the customer as quickly as possible.
This enables learning about what work works much faster as well as giving the project team feedback on which they can act in a much shorter time frame. So if the product is going in the wrong direction the team have this information early on rather than at the end of the project when they don’t have the time or resources to address. This approach can be applied in most workplaces. For a project-based non-profit or consultancy, for example, each project could be designed with short, focused phases each informing the next phase.
I believe that this approach could be particularly useful in the environment sector where we are facing urgent crises. Often our approach in non-profits is through long-term projects with time frames of up to five years. These projects often specify the outputs from the get go and yet they haven’t even tested whether these outputs are going to have the intended impact or not. We’re so often too focused on producing something big and impactful that we miss the bigger picture that we’re working with too many unknowns. These unknowns mean that every project is an experiment in what works and what doesn’t work. Because of this we need to ensure that our project cycles are short with in-built learning and the room to manoeuvre and pivot the project if the current direction of the project is not resulting in the intended impact. So rather than spending our precious resources folding all of the letters to discover that the the letters don’t fit our envelopes - let’s take an important lesson from Lean manufacturing and work in small batches.
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