I am at the San Jose airport waiting to board my flight back to San Diego. It has been an interesting trip up to Silicon Valley as usual. This week I attended the first annual Lean conference of BAE Systems. BAE is a global $27B aerospace & defense enterprise with 96,000 employees in a dozen countries and they appear to be getting quite serious about their Lean initiative.
While I would have liked to come back with some photos, this conference was held at a secure facility, so no cameras were allowed. I will do better next time — I have two more talks coming up in the middle of next month, in San Diego and Palo Alto.
The BAE conference was two and a half days in duration and the agenda consisted mostly of experience reports by BAE managers with a few outside experts invited to provide new perspectives, ideas, and case stories. I gave two presentations – one on Lean Product Development applied to software, and another on Information Architecture in Lean Product Development. More about those two topics soon.
There were also a couple of other folks talking about Lean Product Development, including Ron Mascitelli and Mike Gnam. Mike Gnam is the excutive director of the Lean Product Development Initiative at NCMS, the organization that did the original benchmarking study of the Toyota Product Development System back in 2000. Bob Stow, BAE’s CTO, also discussed the application of Lean to software-intensive programs in his opening remarks.
The Lean Manufacturing presentations looked great — lots of solid, practical results with justifiably fired-up presenters. They have done enough now to encounter their first set of practical obstacles in scaling their efforts, and that is a good place to be. There was clearly a lot of learning going on. That included learning about how to teach Lean — one business unit in the UK reported great success with a three-week program for Lean Manufacturing that involved a mix of 25% theory, 25% homework, and 50% hands-on classroom learning with exercises.
The BAE conference was remarkable in that the leadership is clearly trying to encourage practitioners to learn from each other. It is not just a classical top-down effort. The internal experience reports were given by smart, talented, and energized middle managers who are in many instances given a lot of leadership support and a lot of latitude.
BAE is in the process of launching an internal Community of Practice using SharePoint to host discussion groups, share files, etc. This mirrors what a customer of ours that is also in the defense sector has done. I think it will be very helpful. My only worry is that they will emphasize too much the IT aspect of a Community of Practice and miss out on the in-person aspect. Getting people together is really important, and this conference was a good example of that.
My main interest at this conference was to learn about what other people were doing with (and saying about) Lean Product Development. Clearly there was still a fair amount of confusion about what Lean Product Development is really supposed to be about. In his presentation, Mike Gnam very correctly pointed out how focusing only on individual Lean tools (value stream mapping, kanban, etc.) will NOT yield breakthrough results beyond all the low-hanging fruit that one will catch the first time around.
I know it sounds like a cliche, but Toyota’s approach to product development really DOES represent a paradigm shift. I do not think holding on to existing frameworks (whether CMMI or Agile) will be helpful in the long run. Organizations that want breakthrough improvements have to revisit and rethink their fundamental premises about how work is structured.
That is my take on this, anyway. I think there is going to be a lot of good debate around this — just how should leaders help their organizations transition to Lean? Some speakers were clearly influenced by the Six Sigma approach to organizational change, advocating a model where trained and certified blackbelts do improvement projects.
Developing Lean Leaders is crucial, I agree, but I do not think continuous improvement and improvement is a project with a beginning and an end. It is something very fundamental that must be embedded in the culture, something every single employee is engaged in on a daily basis. Dr. Norman Bodek, referred to by some as “the godfather of Lean in the United States”, gave a rousing keynote in which he pointed out precisely that. He showed how companies could achieve two improvement ideas developed and implemented every month by all employees, yielding huge cost savings. Without a doubt he was one of the most entertaining speakers I have seen in a long time.
All in all, it was a really good conference. The Lean team at BAE in Santa Clara did an outstanding job putting it all together. I met a lot of interesting and impressive people, made some good contacts, and made great progress on a couple of initiatives I cannot discuss just yet. Now it is back to the “real world”, so to speak. Better get the laptop packed up and grab some coffee before my flight boards.