The Future of Lean
Beyond Improvement to Innovation


Written by Jeremy Scrivens, Director, The Emotional Economy at work

Featured at the upcoming ARK event:
Improving Performance Through Business Process Management
Maximise, strategise and save through case studies, theories and vision

One-day connected forum and two post-forum workshops
16 – 17 October 2012

Back in 1996 I first read and studied Womack & Jones wonderful book Lean Thinking. Along with Rummler’s Book The White Spaces on the Organisation Chart, I was introduced to the world of BPM and the concepts of process mapping with the view of making value flow.

I spent years looking to improve value by mapping what doesn’t work and I missed the point. In looking for what is broken or wasteful I missed the true question which is what works, why does it work and how can we extend this good to become more of the norm.

In practice, much of the BPM work I have seen has involved the ‘search for excellence’ or perfecting an existing state by focussing efforts on eliminating waste or ‘muda’ as the Japanese call it. Hence focusing on what is broken or not working (e.g. the seven types of waste) and looking to ‘close the gap’ between the ideal and the perfect state as defined in the existing business standard (e.g. six sigma quality) becomes the centre of activity. The focus is actually on ‘what we do’ and specifically on the ‘how’ we do it. Rarely, if ever is the ‘why’ talked about or challenged. I never saw BPM projects involving the ground floor in questions around who are we, what do we believe, why do exist, how can we put our ding into the universe and what will be our lasting contribution to the world?

Simon Sinek says that everyone knows what they do, some know how they do it but very few know why. He says the great organisations and leaders are great because they engage their people, clients and supporters around why.

Most of the BPM elated projects I have experienced have engaged people around what and how but never why; that is the problem but also the opportunity for us in the next generation of BPM.

The latter is about fundamental questions such as ‘why do we exist’ ‘who are we’ ‘why are we in this business’ ‘what do we believe about the world and the way it should be organised’ ‘what is our destiny or purpose’. None of the BPM projects I saw during the 90’s and early 2000’s delved into these deep and meaningful issues of life and work for people.

Why does this matter? Because the evidence suggests that many BPM, Lean & Six Sigma Projects fail because they don’t engage people from the heart. They try and engage people from the head; the rational stuff around numbers and facts and problems; but people are crying out to be engaged from the heart which is the space around working to your strengths, taking the best of the past with you.

Engagement is about being a creative community and making a difference to people’s lives and knowing why you were meant to exist in this life.

There is a growing group of BPM professionals and interested people who are coming together to discuss and reframe the traditional BPM focus on what is broken and rational to a new frame that focuses on mapping and extending strengths. We are enjoying the journey together and exploring what this all means.

You might like to check out:

What we are discovering in these conversations is that there is a bigger idea than continuous improvement around processes. The emerging idea is the notion of engaging the whole system in conversations around elevating, aligning and extending strengths to create positive organisations that achieve great things because they co-create meaningful futures together. These conversations move beyond continuous improvement and into the space of design which is both rational (how and what) but it is much more about the heart; about the emotional why questions of making a difference to people’s lives and society and the world; it is organisations as creative community.

According to Gallup, less than twenty per cent of people in the Western world get to work to their strengths for most of the time. This is the real waste- the 8th waste if you like. The 20% who are working to their strengths are emotionally engaged with their work and they are four times more productive than those are not engaged emotionally. They work in the zone of continuous creativity which is a bigger idea than improvement and they create together as a community. Check out my overview of the three types of engagement at work

Perhaps the most brilliant author on the Toyota Production Systems, Kiyoshi Suzaki, wrote extensively on the use of Kaizen in Japanese factories in his superb book The New Shop Floor Management (1993). This was all about the “how” of improving our work- the rational stuff.

Then in 2002 Suzaki wrote another book called Results from the Heart in which he had progressed his thinking to where he said that in order for people to be fully effective at work, they needed to be engaged from the heart around values, care, vision and meaning in their work. He saw every person as president of their own company, not just an operator of processes. Suzaki said that when people are fully in command of their work they partner with each other as co-creators around what we do and how we do it but more importantly around the why. The forward to Suzaki’s book was written by the Dalia Lama; not someone who I had come to associate with the world of BPM!!

Appreciative Inquiry is proving to be the emerging new idea in engaging positive rational and emotional whole systems change and innovation in our organisations. It is the hope for our BPM future but it will require reframing the questions we ask. Check out John Hayes overview of Appreciative Inquiry at

Professor Heifetz’s work at Harvard where he distinguishes technical change – improving the what and how – from adaptive change – creating new forms of existence by adapting from the ‘why’ – including our values and assumptions about the world – is so vital for BPM. He says that many leaders apply technical leadership to what is an adaptive challenge which requires new knowledge to be created. He says that in order to take the adaptive challenge you have to engage people as co-creators of what is essentially an unknown future.
Ever since I began to understand that four out of five people in the Western world are unhappy and unfilled at work and that the few who are happy and incredibly switched on at work are engaged emotionally, I have been on a mission with other colleagues globally to transform the conversations on the ground floor from the focus on what and how to why and to discover and extend strengths making the work around mapping and fixing weaknesses irrelevant.

That is why I joined this LinkedIn Strengths Based Lean & Six Sigma Group and have been applying Appreciative Inquiry to my own work involving enterprise change and growth. I want to see us take the best of the past ‘rational’ improvement with us into new forms which engage people emotionally from the heart and create a better world. This means in practice that people will work to get better at what they do because their strengths are being applied to make a lasting difference.

The first major lean project I was involved with where we applied the principles and methods of Appreciative Inquiry was back in 2002 at Blue Sky Catering. You may like to check out

The story of SA Mushrooms is a powerful example. This is an authentic story about a group of real people in an Australian fresh produce business who are using Appreciative Inquiry (AI) to engage their people to take the business ‘from good to great’ by discovering, aligning and extending their strengths.

It is an exciting journey because they are focusing on what they can become and how they will grow at a time when many fresh produce companies are simply trying to survive in tough market conditions. But what is really exciting is that the company is engaging everyone in the business to help build the future. They are doing this as a ‘whole system’.

It is not just the owners and executives behind closed boardroom doors who are building the future of the business as used to happen but all the staff together in the same room, including the ground floor teams; the growers, the pickers and the packers. In an industry where most people are seen only as hired hands that operate assembly processes or pick / pack fresh produce.

To see the people on the ground floor at SA Mushrooms coming together to build the future with their managers and owners and to see the improvement conversation lift beyond the rational idea of process automation and into the why of who we are and what we can become together is truly inspiring.

It is also a very smart business decision; as the benefits of tapping into the combined creativity of everyone is already paying off.