Submarines are incredible machines that are designed to
operate in a number of configurations. One of the difficult ones is something
called “hovering”. A submarine has ballast tanks that control its
buoyancy. To start descending, the submarine floods these tanks with outside
sea water and to surface, you make that water leave in a very impressive
fashion. Anyone who has ever seen” Hunt for Red October” has seen the affects
of a rapid rise to the surface (known as an emergency blow).
Hovering is a useful tactic for a number of reasons. It
allows the submarine to sit in one spot at a certain depth with no forward
motion. Modern boats have a number of devices which allow this to be achieved
but it still takes some effort to do so. The worst thing about hovering is that
it has the negative side effect of making it easier to be detected. Needless to
say, it would make sense not to hover very long.
The same can be said about your business. Are you hovering
right now? At first thought, it would
seem like there is not much effort required for a business or organization to
hover in place. Just stop doing the things you need to grow and innovate. I
would suggest that in the early days of the Great Recession, many companies
decided to hover and wait things out. Incredibly though, just as much energy
was expended in getting to the place where they could stand still as if they
were to continue to move forward and be ready for the next economic spurt.
For anyone in a boardroom in the past few years, see if this
doesn’t sound familiar: training must be cut to the bone, only keep those
absolutely needed to maintain the red line as stable as possible, cancel or
delay all improvement activities. Even cutting things required a certain level
of energy to maintain. What will the cost be to reinitiate those programs? How
far behind are you in your innovation cycle as you sit dormant? What about your
credibility as an organization? Will your employees trust you to make the right
decisions knowing that you failed to see this time period as an opportunity to
move forward with process and product innovations?
Lean programs in many places took a giant hit as resources
dwindled. All of the nay-sayers who did not believe that lean was a good
program were cheering its demise form the sidelines. All of the things that
make lean work were criticized as wasteful in these tough economic times. When
the panic set it, it was easy to blame everything but the real reason why
business was going so badly. Yes, it might be a good idea to innovate, but look
at the cost. Yes, it would be good to have a more flexible and trained work
force, but see the expenses rise? Yes training is essential but is it really
worth the cost in these tough times?
The truth is companies that are poised for growth never let
up on their lean initiatives. They never accepted hovering as a solution. Lean
and especially continuous improvement are actually the right philosophies in
tough times. The cost to do a small kaizen can more often than not be balanced
with the gains. Maybe the gains will not emerge until the upturn in the
economy. But like potential energy, they are poised to break into kinesis, spurred on by the forces of a revived
Innovation is the heart of survival in a business environment.
Just like the greatest inventions of their day are eclipsed by newer and more
fantastic innovations, so are business processes. We already know the value
lean and Six Sigma have in creating value in an organization. What will the
next giant leap forward be? Who will be poised to take advantage of the
recovery with the greatest impact.
Reality does dictate that businesses must protect their
ability to survive in tough times. Organizations that see beyond that and
carefully make investments in process improvement are the real winners in this
economy. They will learn to see waste in a brand new way as inventories are
forced to adjust to market climates. They can start to understand flow in their
processes in this artificially suppressed system and truly determine if they
have been operating a pull or push system within their organization. They can become
even closer to their customers as the supply chain tightens. Do you really know
what your customer’s needs are? Do they? Truthfully, as the market has tightened,
they have become smarter about inventory. Have you had this discussion with
them recently? If not what are you waiting for?
Finally, you need to see your system end to end with a new
eye. Instead of treating your suppliers like rented mules that can be easily turned
back into new rented mules, you must accept that going forward, they are not
just part of an extended supply chain, they are your lifeline. Developing a
supply base that aligns to your lean environment will ensure that all of you
survive through even the toughest time.
People will still need products and services. At the
completion of this cycle, there will be fewer businesses but the demand
potential on a global basis could actually increase. The companies and
organizations that plan and prepare for that time will be in a better place to
align their outcomes to that new demand.
The question for you is will you be hovering or will you be
lean enough to ring up all ahead flank speed in your journey to success?