by Sam Yankelevitch

What does communication have to do with Lean? Just about everything. Lean is about action, and communication precedes action.

In the late 1970’s Phillip Crosby coined the term, Doing It Right The First Time, DIRFT, a quality concept closely related to the work we do in Lean. While eliminating the possibility of errors and waste in a process helps avoid defects, standardizing that process, helps drive continuous improvement and increases customer value.

And how do we get things done in any organization that is made up of interdependent people, processes and systems? All these elements have to communicate in order to coordinate, align and collabo-rate.

Unfortunately, if communication is not considered as part of DIRFT, and our improvement focus is dominated by physical processes, it causes us to ignore other things, like communication.

Learning from the source and the extremes

In my 30+ years in global operations, there was always a direct cause and effect relation-ship between communication and execution, and therefore results. Most business scenarios were affected by variation caused by different languages, diverse cultures and geographical distances- from those extreme situations I personally experienced the connection between communication and Lean.

Thinking back when I started, I read sources that gave me the confidence to validate that the original forms of Lean based on Toyota’s Thinking System, included communication as a main focus.

For example, in the 1999 Harvard Business Re-view article decoding the DNA of the Toyota Pro-duction System Steven Spears and H. Kent Bowen point out one of 4 elements making up that DNA as: How people connect, which helps create a supplier-customer relationship between each person and the persons responsible for providing them with specific information. This element also helps clarify who is going to do what by when and who is responsible to provide help when needed.

In his book Gemba Kaizen, Masaaki Imai, who worked directly with Toyota’s Taiichi Ohno, also refers to a customer-supplier relationship when he states “Quality begins when everybody in the organization commits to never sending rejects or imperfect information to the next process.”

He reminds us of Dr. Ishikawa’s axiom: …“the next process is the customer, refers to the internal customer within the same company.

Dr. W.E. Deming in Out of the Crisis provided us with the concept of Operational Definitions that people can use to do business with, that are communicable with the same meaning between a supplier and a customer, and builds a clear understanding of a concept so that it’s outcome can be unambiguously measured. The concept of cLean for example can have different meanings, but for a cLean room the term cLean has to mean something tangible, specific to all parties involved, and should have an agreed way to measure objectively what cLean means.

In addition, I consider the TPS practices of Catch-ball, Nemawashi, Yokoten, and Hoshin Kanri, manifestations of a deliberate strategy to make sure everyone in the organization is on the same page, thus ensuring that true communication happens, and things get done right.

Lean drawings, specifications, and email.

The application of Lean communication is not limited to how people speak to each other verbally.

In today’s business environment we also communicate via drawings, specifications, instructions, email and texts. Incredibly, in the 21st century where we have IOT, 5G, AI and so much technology to help us connect, there are still a lot of low hanging fruit opportunities to improve how we communicate.

Even today in my work, I witness drawings that have unreadable handwritten notes, poorly translated specifications that distort the original intent of a technical detail, and of course, lots of misinterpreted texts and emails. In these cases, ambiguity and incomplete information can be direct sources of waste.

Recently, a date nomenclature: 10-3-2019 that was meant to mean an implementation date by the tenth day of March was misinterpreted across the ocean as October 3rd- and caused a lot of tangible, costly waste by delaying a project.

A challenge: communication is invisible.

One problem with communication is that it’s invisible. The playwright George Bernard Shaw is quoted as saying “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” If Lean is about action, the bigger problem occurs when people act under the illusion that the task at hand was under-stood- and then physically wasteful activities can hap-pen.

One Lean solution to this is to map out the communication to help us visualize the process steps. I have used an internal customer-supplier process map, where both par-ties are responsible for achieving a common under-standing, or in Lean terms a standard. While the supplier is responsible for crafting a message that is clear and unambiguous, the customer is responsible to ask questions or add context, until a standard (common understanding) is achieved.

Another Lean solution can be adapted when studying the root cause of a problem. For every problem analysis, we added a specific communication bone to our fishbone diagram which helped trigger questions about how communication may have contributed to the problem gap. Then we revisited every step on the process map to check where miscommunication may have occurred.

Of course, the process you map can be continuously improved by using PDCA, which brings us to A3 thinking.

In a macro sense, the standard 8-step form can be viewed a Lean communication process - an additional powerful benefit to A3 thinking. It provides a standard way for everyone to communicate across the enterprise. By bringing assumptions to the surface, clarifying meanings between different stakeholders, and making it easier to present complex ideas it makes communication both effective and efficient.

The goal: uninterrupted flow.

Perhaps the focus on communication dropped off and disintegrated as it crossed the Pacific?

Surely, the importance of flow should not be limited to physical material and transformation processes, but also considered in the communication processes, like the flow of information, instructions and requests that travel vertically, horizontally, as well as to your distributors and suppliers.

In reality, we don’t get to pick and choose.

Our customer expects us to reduce all forms of waste and continuously improve all our processes- even if some are invisible- like communication.

Fortunately, our Lean thinking mindset gives us an advantage that can help organizations, supply chains and projects reduce waste caused by miscommunication.

Considering VUCA is upon us and the acceleration of complexity in our business world, the time is ripe for Lean practitioners to reintegrate communication into their continuous improvement work.


Sam Yankelevitch is a former global operations executive, turned team facilitator author, and international speaker. Sam’s expertise is focused on the problems organizations are experiencing in the increasing complexity of the 21st century.

To help get his message out, Sam has published: Walking the Invisible Gemba, Lean Communication, Global Lean and Lean Potion #9- Communication, The Next Lean Frontier and several LinkedIn Learning courses. Join Sam on LinkedIn to start a conversation.

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