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12 Predictions about Lean in 2011

With the New Year coming soon, I’ve been thinking a lot about what the future has in store. I am anticipating some major changes for Lean. Some of these predictions are US focused, but most are internationally applicable.

  1. Lean will continue to grow. Hiring for Lean vs. Six Sigma is rising. (See my Gotta Go Lean blog article.) In the coming years, the people filling these roles will be spreading Lean concepts throughout their new companies, creating further demand for Lean skills for the foreseeable future.
  2. Lean knowledge is becoming more accessible. I have seen more and more information becoming available online. Whether it is from bloggers writing about Lean in their spare time, consulting companies adding more information to their websites, or videos popping up on YouTube, the Lean do-it-yourselfer has more tools than ever. This will benefit companies with experience in Lean. They can sift through the differing opinions and have the foundation to apply new concepts to an existing mindset. I suspect, though, that many small to mid-sized businesses will use this easy access to information to try to learn Lean on their own. They will experience varying degrees of success. Some will grasp the concepts, but many will struggle. In short, this new area of Lean growth will have a low success rate.
  3. More companies will reassess their decisions to use offshore manufacturing. In China, currency changes and growing labor disputes over wage hikes make manufacturing there slightly less appealing. Add in the soft labor market in the US, and local manufacturing starts to look more promising.
  4. Container costs will continue to rise. Shipping is always getting more expensive. Carriers often try to reduce the impact of rising fuel costs by slowing down. The upward direction of both costs and shipping time acts against Lean principles. It will mean that local companies will be looked at more closely as suppliers. And that will mean pressure on them to provide service and deliveries in a Lean fashion.
  5. Political climates will remain volatile. An explosive device found on a cargo carrier’s plane recently will likely result in more careful and time consuming security procedures from international shipping. While the volatility is nothing new, this particular method creates some uncertainty.
  6. Social networking will change the nature of projects. Newly minted high school and college graduates are used to working together via electronic media. Projects are discussed continuously rather than just in meetings. Lines between online connections and real-world contact are blurred. As younger employees with this style of interaction rise into authority roles, expect kaizen projects to take a more fluid structure, especially in administrative settings.
  7. Searches will improve, and will migrate to corporate networks. Algorithms for finding information are getting better. That means there is a greater potential for sharing best practices within a company, especially in large multi-national conglomerates. I suspect you will soon start to see knowledge management systems that will let you tap into the wisdom of the whole company.
  8. Businesses will remain gun-shy. Despite improving conditions, there are a lot of companies sitting on piles of cash. They are reluctant to invest too heavily in growth until they are certain that there are no false starts to the economy picking up steam. This means many teams will constantly be behind the 8-ball. As a result, teams will cut back on time spent on improvements when they need them the most.
  9. Social networking will increase the pressure on companies. Facebook is well over half a billion users. There are now well over 600 tweets per second. While most of these brief messages are never read, the small percentage that are creates a lot of potential comments about your company. Bad news travels faster than ever. And it isn’t always fair or accurate.
  10. Toyota will be less synonymous with Lean. Despite Toyota’s quality woes, both the real ones and the perceived ones, nothing major appears to have changed concerning the continuous improvement culture on their shop floor. The fact is, though, that Toyota’s reputation is tarnished and people are looking with interest at the resurgence of other auto manufacturers. Honda has quietly become a leader by many key measures. Ford is thriving. In fact, Ford’s 2010 J.D Powers initial quality score of 93 was significantly better than Toyota’s 2009 score of 101. (Toyota’s 117 in 2010 is related to its recent quality issues). Even Hyundai is making some noise with its strong quality and low cost. Plus non-auto makers are taking the Lean ball and running with it more than ever. On the Lean information front, it means that people will be looking at companies other than Toyota to find examples of Lean.
  11. The job market will strengthen. And when it does, there will be a lot of ship-jumping. People who have felt trapped in their jobs will start seeing other opportunities. The first ones to start feeling safe making a transition will likely be the high performers. If companies are not working on a retention plan now, they will be in trouble in the next 18 months or so. Since many high-performers are also, not coincidentally, those that embrace Lean principles, continuous improvement progress will suffer.
  12. Engineering functions will be assumed by non-engineers. For years there has been talk about a growing engineer shortage in the US. Forbes reported that in both 2008 and 2009, engineering positions were the hardest ones to fill. As companies grow in 2011 and add staff, they will have trouble getting enough engineers on the team. To stretch their capabilities, they will offload many Lean functions that engineers do to supervisors, leads, and promising frontline talent.

Simply put, times are a-changing. It will be an interesting run in the next few years as many rules and assumptions about business are challenged. The companies that are forward thinking and guess right about the future are going to be the ones that thrive.

While I can’t predict exactly what will happen, I feel confident that the need for a workforce that is more skilled at problem solving is in the cards. (Learn about our problem-solving training bundle. We have recently packaged up several of our classes into a problem solving tools bundle. Teach your team about Pareto Charts, the 5 Whys and Root Cause Analysis, Cause and Effect Diagrams, Flow Charts, and Run Charts. Use our cost effective training materials to get your team solving problems on their own.) That problem solving mentality combined with a leadership team that sets challenging, customer-focused targets provide the foundation for a continuous improvement culture. When the right team is in place, it can react more quickly to new challenges.

So, two questions for you….

  1. What do you think of my predictions?
  2. What other changes do you see in the future?


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