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Robert Bruner

Robert Bruner

Robert F. Bruner is the Dean of the Darden School of Business, University of Virginia, and author of a blog and several books, including The Panic of 1907: Lessons Learned from the Market's Perfect Storm.

Lean thinking

So much of leadership is about framing the possibilities or alternatives. For many organizations today, the only way forward is to think lean, to use resources more sparingly while achieving equal or better results. But fundamentally, lean thinking isn't about cutting costs or people. Rather, it is about getting the waste or "stuff" out of our lives and operations: unnecessary meetings; approvals in triplicate; big inventories of materiel that you rarely if ever use; delays of all kinds; bloated expense accounts; and the notorious three-martini lunches.

Anything that does not add value to customers (or if in government, those we serve) is waste, and the Japanese have an evocative word for it: muda. Getting the muda out of our lives and work places can actually make for more satisfying work and higher morale: fewer "redo's," less bureaucracy, lower frustration, greater identification with those we serve; and a stronger sense of belonging to a high-performance organization. Early January is a wonderful moment, a time of New Year's resolutions, to get rid of the muda around us.

Public universities are at the forefront of the need to do more with less. A year ago, I launched a lean thinking initiative at the Darden School--I held an "all hands" meeting and described the consequences of the economic crisis around us. Our leadership team read and discussed classic books on lean thinking and case studies of successes. I facilitated focus group meetings with front-line supervisors. We called on the expertise of some of our alumni and members of our faculty. Our students got into the act with projects around environmental sustainability (yes, that's lean thinking too.) The net effect: some small early wins, more projects in progress, and a whole new mindset as we head into the new budgeting cycle.

So far, the experience has taught me three lessons. First, the leader has to set the tone of lean thinking--it can't just be about cost cutting; it must be about transforming the organization for high performance. Second, the best ideas come from the front line, and the leader must therefore learn to listen well. Third, lean thinking entails a culture change within an organization, and culture change takes time. But managing change is what leadership is about. If all you want to do is cut costs, then you don't need a leader; you need an accountant.

By Robert Bruner

 |  January 4, 2010; 1:13 PM ET
Category:  Economic crisis Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I hear you. A topic of “doing more with less” is guaranteed to bring up some of the anger out there to which managers, shareholders, politicians, and academics need to pay attention. But it’s wrong to condemn the whole lean movement on the basis of a bad personal experience with cost cutting or because of an objection to CEO pay or management duplicity—those are valid subjects worthy of a wholly different panel discussion. There is quite a lot of evidence to support the claims about the potential benefits from lean thinking.

For the sake of brevity, I will respond to two broad themes in the comments. The first theme regards process at Darden. My comments gave more weight to communication and messaging because the Post asked me to comment on motivating employees in these times. Going lean takes years; the job of the leader is to energize people to make the effort. Compared to the best practitioners, the investment we made in planning and communicating was small. And we did involve the front line—to reach a 500-word target I couldn’t give all the details. Accountants can lead and do help; my point was that if you start with thinking about this as just a numbers exercise, you are likely to miss the transformation necessary to really get better. While lean manufacturing is well documented and easy to explain, the subject of lean services is relatively less explored—and lean higher education is almost entirely unexplored. We may be writing the playbook as we go along; no one said this would be easy.

The second theme is results. In a process that will take years, “small early wins” means that we are about on-track. Did our lean projects result in layoffs? No. Can we slow the rate of tuition increases? I think that’s almost inevitable and lean thinking can provide the ability to do so. Do we now have a “gung-ho” staff? We had a very cohesive professional community before this all started and we’re just as strong if not stronger now; lean thinking has given us a way to address the challenge of making do with less.

Posted by: BobBruner | January 10, 2010 9:33 PM
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I too think it'd great if the panelists responded to some comments.

You wrote: "Our leadership team read and discussed classic books on lean thinking and case studies of successes. I facilitated focus group meetings with front-line supervisors. We called on the expertise of some of our alumni and members of our faculty. Our students got into the act with projects around environmental sustainability (yes, that's lean thinking too.) The net effect: some small early wins, more projects in progress, and a whole new mindset as we head into the new budgeting cycle."

Most companies I've seen would not think that this amount of planning and communicating is lean. I think most people take the notion of "lean" too far, too the point of ad hoc and seat of the pants.

On the other hand, if the best ideas come from the front line then why was the discussion limited to the front line supervisors?

I think that the separation of managers and workers can be overdone. Management wants an "us" mentality but doesn't fully respect each worker enough to get it. This may sound too harsh. I think this is one thread i take from shadowMagicians post, (if i don't misstate it) that I've noticed in my career as well.

Posted by: talmans | January 6, 2010 1:11 PM
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The leader has to set the tone of lean thinking--it can't just be about cost cutting; it must be about transforming the organization for high performance.

High performance is instilled by leadership. Business ethics has got to stop being the oxymoron of the decade. Transformation of the organization is attained by providing employees a sense of value, purpose, security, future, self-worth and respect. Business leaders have a fiduciary duty to instill these attributes into the culture of their organizations.

The best ideas come from the front line, and the leader must therefore learn to listen well.

Not only listen but implement. There are many fine leaders who listen but there are more who never implement the high quality front line ideas put forth.

Lean thinking entails a culture change within an organization, and culture change takes time. But managing change is what leadership is about. If all you want to do is cut costs, then you don't need a leader; you need an accountant.

If one works for Deloitte than the accountant is the primary beneficiary of culture change. However, in a University setting an accountant, as with others, are members of the decision support team that can help to affect quality change.

Thus if leadership stops making employees expendable fodder or employment at will lackeys I think one can guarantee leadership that they will see a positive organizational culture change; sooner than they might think.

Posted by: batthouse114 | January 6, 2010 1:01 PM
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"If it's important, we measure it; if it's unimportant we don't." Perhaps a good broad measurement would be at least a decrease in the rate of tuition (and those fees that most schools don't measure when touting tuition rates) increases.
Are not some leaders, accountants? Wish more leaders thought, just a little, like accountants. We might not be in this economic mess.

Posted by: DardenDonor | January 6, 2010 11:01 AM
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I've worked in higher education IT for over 20 years, and much of what ShadowMagician says applies here as well. I respect Mr. Bruner's opinion and expertise, and think it would be informative if he replied to Shadowmagician's points.
It's also worth noting that ShadowMagician comments are essentially anonymous, while Mr. Bruner has attached his name to his opinions.
- Tim

Posted by: tfjtolson | January 6, 2010 10:18 AM
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Getting rid of Muda IS a great idea--wherever it exists, including in the board room and executive suite. Grad business school deans don't tend to talk about that, and they should. Also, top people taking responsibility for losses in US businesses has almost disappeared; it would be refreshing to hear from a GBS dean on that score. Darden's Dean Bruner is highly respected--his comments on how to reform the "me first" attitudes of many of America's senior managers would have listeners.

Posted by: Augusts20 | January 6, 2010 7:03 AM
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A company can cut only so far before the diminishing benefit of making cuts turns into detriment to the proper and efficient functioning of the company. Compound this with the ignorance the executive office often has of how their own company actually works. The executive office is only concerned with setting direction and making big picture decisions. In reality, the details of how their direction is executed is seen as just that, details. What they dismiss as a few minor details can make the difference between phenomenal success and debilitating failure. These details rest on the employees with the institutional knowledge they have ignorantly let go to trim payroll or the ones who never gain the full ramifications of their work because of "churn and burn" policies. Either way, without the people to do the work, it won't get done completely or properly.

One never sees a report about how much a company wastes due to starting and stopping an efforts to shift resources.

Lets take it one step further. If a manager allows for his for enough workers so workforce is running at 85-90% capacity, that manager will have a workforce that will be more innovative and help improve productivity year over last.

Mine does and we do.

It costs money to make money. In lean times, you may run a deficit based on labor expenses. Offset it with the super-normal profits of the boom times.

Posted by: NotAffiliatedVoter | January 4, 2010 9:17 PM
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"Anything that does not add value to customers (or if in government, those we serve) is waste..."
"The net effect: some small early wins, more projects in progress, and a whole new mindset as we head into the new budgeting cycle."
----------------------------
So you presented a lot of "talking points", and your gung-ho crowd ran with it and scored some "small early wins" with "more projects in progress". Not to put down your successes, but I hoped for more.

There are always trade-offs, and there are good reasons for forms in triplicate. "Thinking lean" is great until the preparer of some of that "unnecessary stuff" is downsized, the "stuff" turns out to be legally required, and after a fire drill, relearning the "stuff", catching up/finger pointing, more time and effort, we are back at square 1 having put out MORE effort (true story).

Anyway - Your three talking points seem strained.

First that the organization is transformed for high performance when your actual results scored just some "small, early wins" (your words).

Second - the best ideas come from the front line. No fooling? One of the things of the Japanese model that most impressed me was that Japanese upper management KNEW what their company does, ANY worker could stop the work process if there was a problem, and the problem would be discussed and FIXED. What happens here? Since you get paid to produce this talking point to American management, it's self evident.

And Third - "lean thinking entails a culture change within an organization, and culture change takes time. But managing change is what leadership is about."

My old company paid a consultant who pushed the following idea: the consultant guessed that 10% of what we did was MUDA, then it follows that if 10% of the employees were laid off, the non-essential work, the MUDA, will vanish; since we would focus on the essential stuff. I repeat - he got paid for that. I hear that concept is repackaged as "Employee Engagement" - work harder of the same pay.

Sorry - You are pushing the part of the Japanese model that appeals to American upper management - basically have the workers do more work for less pay. The Japanese have traditionally also looked after the welfare of ALL employees, upper management did NOT insist on multi-billion dollar bonuses, in fact if the company hit a rough spot, they, since their decisions were responsible, would apologize to the workers and take a temporary pay CUT! Why don't you write a column on that aspect of their culture? And recommend it to your clients?

Posted by: shadowmagician | January 4, 2010 4:34 PM
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My advice?

Vote Republican.

If you can't do that, vote Libertarian, Green, or any other party, but not Democrat.

Posted by: Jerzy | January 4, 2010 3:26 PM
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