Lean thinking

I’ve always been a fan of Lean. Most recently, Lean Startup has been very influential on me, as it has been on many others. On my desk sits an unread copy of Lean Analytics, and now, I see we have also got ‘lean strategy’, meaning not the strategy of using lean techniques, but rather the use of lean techniques to develop strategy.

In this post, Andy Whitlock of Made by Many, espouses the change in mind-set of strategist getting involved in new lean techniques.

Is this still strategy? Not, perhaps in its traditional sense. Many would say lean is almost an ‘anti-strategy’ movement, in the sense of favouring action over long planning cycles. This would make ‘lean strategy’ an aggressive contradiction in terms, a self-destructive oxymoron. And that sounds like some thing we should avoid.

But forgetting all that, what is it Andy is really saying? He seems to have three themes:

1/ The ideas can come from anywhere – strategists need to come to believe that their team is just as capable of generating useful insight as they are, and need to learn the language of their colleagues so they can take part more

2/ Don’t cook up big intellectual theories to confuse people – provide information that can actually be used to do things.

3/ Propose intermediary hypothesis and watch them adapt rather than trying to solve the whole problem upfront. Very lean.

Perhaps it was always a good idea for planners to be less precious (1), less overly intellectual (2) and less hell-bent on grand unifying theories (3). But if the lean movement underscores those needs, so much the better.

For my money, the job of the strategist / planner remains the same: make complicated things seem simpler and figure out how to solve the problem. Doing that in rapid iterations and tests is certainly unusual for the average planner, but should be welcomed by most once they’ve got over the shock of the whole thing, since it gives us a chance to break down and learn about problems in pieces as humans really do,  removing the often unrealistic expectation for a sudden, blinding flash of inspirational light.

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Just in time

 Starting the day, the agile way

I’ve been thinking about this topic – how the principles of lean manufacturing could teach us something interesting about marketing – for ages, but getting nowhere with writing about it.

Little things keep reminding me I need to get on with it. Like Amelia’s discussion about getting the most passionate customers involved in the marketing of the O2 Cocoon, George Parker’s scathing rant about Ford’s decision to allow its customers to pick more colours for their cars. And the latest today (buried amongst a huge volume of excellent posts all arriving at once) from  Russell Davies’ very interesting campaign piece on taking influences from outside the advertising echo chamber – and in particular from Agile, lean’s equivalent in software engineering – to actually find new ways to think about things.

In The Machine that Changed the World – the book which originally brought some of the secrets of the Toyota Production System (TPS) to the wider world, the authors discuss sales and marketing in the US and Japanese markets from a very academic stand point, as well as starting to extrapolate out what a ‘lean’ marketing system might look like in detail. That vision, written in the late 80s, is unbelievably similar to many of the ideas that are only now being adopted in response to the dwindling effect of purchased attention – or as Seth Godin has it, the death of the TV-industrial complex.

Of course, a lot of this comes back, actually, to product development, and building the right thing in the first place.

The number one manta of the lean movement is well known: ‘reduce waste’, the number two mantra is to fix problems immediately and relentlessly. What do we actually do – let’s be honest -in marketing in the UK and America? Does this description sound totally unreasonable?: we try and take the parity product our client has given us and create a layer of desire – either from a genuine product feature or benefit, or from somewhere else if necessary, to make people want to buy it. We then interrupt what they’re doing and shout that message at them. How often do ad agencies really go back to a client and say, ‘we can’t help I’m afraid, you’re product’s just too shit’?

How would it work if we actually tried to bring the user into the deep design process of the product and it’s marketing? Of course we’re not asking them to actually design the product themselves but we must understand what they want and need; what turns them on; what seems average, run of the mill, unexciting; what they would trade for something else?

We’re already seeing that happening, through blogs, good research and straight-forward customer intimacy from a number of companies, especially those who are changing their production methodologies so that new products can be released all the time.

Here’s another thought experiment. How about we try to rebuild the methods of making advertising in a lean vein. Here’s five things I think we can all agree would have to happen immediately:

  1. There’s three people we’d include fully in the actual creative process who are currently excluded – the client, the customer (and/or research company), and the production company (or internal production staff). And we’d include them in planning too, and briefing, and production. And no, the planner can’t stand in for the customer, the account man can’t stand in for the client, and the creative director cannot ‘stand in’ for the team who will actually do the work.
  2. Have you ever worked in an ad agency and watched a campaign go wrong? What do people really do when they see that happening? Do they try and fix the problem? Or do they just remove their arse from the firing line.  The closest I’ve seen to the TPS “five whys” of tracking down and elminiating the causes of defects was a marvelous phrase Charles Vallance coined (and lived up to) at VCCP: ‘tough on whingeing and tough on the causes of whingeing’. Having said that…How many times have you worked on an advertising campaign that was a crock of shit, you knew it wouldn’t work and customers would hate it, so did everyone else, but you just kept ploughing on anyhow. I’m going to raise my hand. Be honest!One of the tenants of TPS is the that everyone on the line can stop the process and raise a concern about quality. In fact it’s encouraged. This comes through to Agile and we add to it by ensuring the code must compile every day. Imagine the agency where every member of staff – from Creative Director to courier has a big red button on their desk to hit whenever they see a horrible campaign – there would be sirens going off all day.
  3. When a campaign sails through research, is that good or bad for the research company, is it good or bad for the ad agency, is it good or bad for the client? So often we have secret communities of interest – or more importantly disinterest – within the groups working on an ad. That’s how we end up with the compromise agreements that fill our screens. In order for us to do the best work, we need joint responsibility for the overall output. This is what Womack et all (MTCTW) refer to as setting targets “one stage up”, and would essentially tie all agencies fortunes to the success of the ad itself.
  4. There should be flexibility, within agencies for staff to move between roles. We’ve all met creatives who are ex-planners or planners who are ex -creatives and we know how well this can work. In terms of team responsibility, does the most experienced member of the team lead, facilitate or get to make all the decisions. There is a role for management in lean to simply enable staff, rather than have to constantly review and overpower their input.
  5. Finally and I suspect the only thing that ad agencies will like out of what I’ve just said, is the question of how should the client pay. On results? On time and materials?, as a fixed price?, On the value of the ideas?This is the hardest bit. And that’s because it’s the bit where ad agencies have spent the longest trying to re-invent the relationship in their favor. The truth, I suspect, is that if we could remove the fairy-dust approach most agencies strive for in the creative departments, and work really hard to help the clients understand what happens to get their campaigns done, and to get them right, clients would be happier to cough up for what that should really cost.It’s a real cost of their business after all. But the situation we’ve got ourselves in is exactly the same as the adversarial situation mass-production car companies have found with their downstream suppliers (like the gearbox makers).Procurement departments won’t pay for any product investment or insight, so suppliers (the agencies) spend their entire time concealing their real costs in production, or the creative development.

    Just because some agencies will say they’re giving away the creative for free doesn’t mean procurement departments should buy it, and a low theoretical margin within a suppler is not always the best business choice.

    Part of the point about payment is the question of what the relationship between clients and advertising agencies should look like. For so long as clients or agencies prioritize things that don’t matter to the customer (I mean awards, but there are all sorts of things that can creep into the relationship), that relationship will fail. And it mustn’t be carefree either. It should be consistently transparent how things are going and if mistakes are made. But that won’t happen when there’s always the threat of the client switching agency over an immediate short-term issue. And, if the client does find a problem in their relationship with the agency, they should be able to help get it fixed by working together on the detail, not just switching to a new supplier. In TPS, senior supplier team members are regularly co-opted into product development teams of the assembler. Couldn’t something similar usefully happen in the marketing world. Similarly, senior assembler team members are sent to increase understanding and efficiencies in the supplier. Would that really be any bad thing?

There’s a lot in those five points, and I’m sure there are hundreds more ideas that could be borrowed from the lean movement in the marketing and creative service sectors, as well of course in the actual marketing departments of client firms. But it will be incredibly difficult for  an agency to really embrace these ideas in these most traditional of worlds? It’s a shame, because it’s about time.

The machine that changed the world

Mass production car plant line

I’ve been reading the fantastic The Machine that Changed the World. The book was first published in 1990 by a team of economists from MIT in response to the whacking which American car producers were receiving from the Japanese.

Machine that changed the world (book cover)

It had been widely assumed that the system the Japanese were using to simultaneously deliver higher productivity, higher quality, quicker plant turn around, faster product development and greater innovation were deeply rooted in particularities of Japanese culture and ethos. Anyone who has visited Japan will know that the culture is dramatically different from the west with significantly greater emphasis placed on the role of the group and social responsibility. Weren’t these the factors that were allowing the Japanese to beat the US at their own game – large scale car production as it had originally been devised by Henry Ford in the 20s?

In fact, Womack et al. establish through detailed investigation of the Toyota Production System (TPS), as well as detailed on-site analysis of many US, European and Japanese car plants, that the new ways to produce automobiles on a large scale – dubbed “lean production” – are in fact simply better than the “mass production” techniques we are all taught to believe are best-in-class. Whatsmore they can  be implemented anywhere. The proof being the American owned and Japanese owned lean-production plants which now exist in the US and Europe.

Unlike mass production, lean production returns responsibility for the smooth running of the factory to the staff that actually work on the production line, it places an emphasis on immediately removing all defects and minimising waste, involves customers in the design process and it is based on the understanding that it is not always best to try and make all project decisions in advance. It is a revolutionay way to look at processes and governance.

I strongly recommend the book which covers all of this in a very digestible manner and is very engagingly written too.

I’ve been introduced to all of this by the adaption of these principles to software engineering (the Agile Movement) at Conchango, and so I’m going to pick up my points on this subject on my new, and not very shiny blog over there. There’s a lot to talk about and this book review will be the only post I put on both blogs. I’m intending to look both at the key lean principles but also about how they could be implemented in all sorts of places in today’s ultra-competitive and ultra-open markets.

And if you’re thinking this is all about cars. Think again. Here a story about the Wii whipping the PS3. The PS3 is (despite being Japanese) a classic product cycle development. Wii is innovation. Innovation requires lean thinking.