Digital transformation: 5 good reasons not to ditch Lean too quick

In the hype of digital transformation, the appeal of new technologies and the hope to buy turnkey solutions to lasting problems may eclipse the good old Lean, even so all the potentials of the latter haven’t been fully exploited.

Now here are 5 good reasons not to ditch Lean too quick:

Digitizing wasteful activities is… a super waste!

Peter Drucker’s quote “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” can be updated for the digital age into: “There is no such a waste than digitizing what should not be done at all”. In other words, digitizing wasteful activities is a super waste.

In the digital hype it is not uncommon to have suggestions or decisions about “improving” tasks and activities with technology. Yet before upgrading such tasks or activities, one should question the intrinsic value of it as well as those tasks and activities contribution to the process and the organization. Digitizing every task and activity is not likely to end up with an improved, efficient process.

Lean thinking is therefore helpful to analyse and discriminate value-adding activities from wasteful ones, those burning-up resources without adding value the customer is willing to pay for, nor bringing the organization closer to its Goal.

Digitizing broken processes won’t fix them

Just as for improving tasks and activities, many think of digitizing processes to fix problems. Alas, the truth is that digitizing broken processes won’t fix them. There is no such a thing like a digital turnkey solution to fix broken processes. Those kinds of mistakes have been done in the early years of computer-aided management, the rollout of the Enterprise Resource Planning systems and brought the infamous “garbage-in, garbage out” to the next level.

Here again Lean Thinking can help. Before going to apply a digital varnish onto processes, it is advised to analyse them for effectiveness, quality, lead time, resource consumption, etc. and if they need some fix, fix them before considering digitization. The good old and proven Value Stream Mapping can help, as well as many of the Lean Six Sigma problem solving methods and tools. Processes may need to be reengineered and for that, Value Stream Design e.i. drawing the process’ future state is one good way.

New technologies don’t give competitive advantage by themselves

Here is another myth that needs to be busted: the new technologies don’t give competitive advantage by themselves, whatever vendors advertise.

The reason is simple: new technologies are available to all competitors. There are no barriers to entry, no incredibly high investments needed, no embargo…

What will be the differentiating factor is the way the technologies will be used, how the current value proposition will be transformed into a unrefusable offer, one that is so appealing that it will attract literally all customers. To achieve this, several methods and tools are suitable, among which the previously mentioned Value Stream Design as well as the Goal Tree, the Value Proposition Canvas, etc.

But the new propositions have to be served by efficient processes in order for the company to deliver and remain profitable. And what proven approach to efficient processes comes to mind if not Lean Thinking?

In digital transformation, the key success factor is transformation

In order to reap the full value of a digital transformation, it is necessary to understand the difference between digitization (creating a digital version of something analog or physical) and digitalization, which most often refers to enabling, improving and/or transforming business operations with the help of digital technologies. The latter implies a real transformation of the existing processes in order to consistently use and benefit from the digital tools.

Failing to digitally transform means most probably digitizing here and there i.e. setting up a digital solution, and ending up with a hybrid system requiring handovers and multiple data entry instead of coherent, seamless and efficient processes. Again, efficient processes call for Lean Thinking but Lean is also about the never-ending journey aiming to transform the organization into a waste-free efficient one. I assume that organizations familiar with Lean transformation will also be all the more familiar with digital transformation, hence speeding up the latter.

Lean and digital are not mutually exclusive

We have seen with the above arguments that Lean and digital are far from being mutually exclusive. On the contrary, Lean can be seen as a prerequisite, a booster and a catalyst.

Organizations that are already engaged in a Lean transformation should not stop their efforts and skip to digital transformation, but keep going on and integer the potentials of digital solutions in their transformation journey. This transformation is then a Lean-digital one or a digital-Lean one or whatever it may be called. What matters is to find the increased value using Lean in synergy with digital. Or other way round.


Comments welcome.

About the author, Chris Hohmann

About the author, Chris Hohmann

View Christian HOHMANN's profile on LinkedIn

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One thought on “Digital transformation: 5 good reasons not to ditch Lean too quick

  1. Hi Chris,

    When it comes to the notion of “digitalization,” there’s nothing that strikes me as being exceptionally different from the sorts of transformational applications of computer-based systems throughout much of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Back then – as computing technologies moved out of the data centers into more distributed departmental and localized desktop venues, in the manufacturing sector the BIG TRANSFORMATION was in digitizing product and process-related data; particularly through the application of integrated CAD/CAE/CAM/CIM and CIE technologies.

    Needless to say, it was tough, challenging work and there were no “just-add-water” recipes for making it happen – despite what many vendors of so-called INTEGRATED SOLUTIONS might have their customers believe. What proved essential for any organizations attempting to pursue this sort of transformational reengineering endeavor was the ability to remain flexible and adaptable in the face of competing technologies. Those that “hardwired” themselves into single-vendor based solutions typically did so at the expense of future flexibility and adaptability; that is unless they were willing and able to bear the cost of switching.

    What this means for the present day – and future – investments in technology-based capabilities is the need for on-going LEARNING (at the individual, group/team, departmental and enterprise-wide levels) via rapid/adaptive problem-solving and purposeful/targeted experimentation. Those organizations that have already made a commitment to TRUE LEAN THINKING AND BEHAVING are well positioned – by virtue of their institutionalized learning abilities – to embrace and extract value from today’s digitalization trend. They already understand that technology by itself is NEVER going to be a panacea and that at the heart/core of any real sustainable capabilities is a HOLISTIC/SYSTEMS orientation that involves the combination of people, processes, technologies, policies, procedures, protocols and environmental working conditions. Without this sort of foundational mindset, the likelihood of being able to take advantage of technological advances in any form – but especially in the form of combined and integrated technology-based solutions – is next to nil.

    Bottom line: With these thoughts in mind, it appears to me that this digitialization trend is a good example of de ja vu all over again. And any TRUE LEAN THINKERS AND DOERS are going to be immune from the effects of drinking the over-hyped and media popularized cool-aid.

    Liked by 1 person

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