posted 10 May 2011 in Volume 14 Issue 6
Robin Smith explains how lean information and knowledge management processes can deliver better organisational intelligence
The new reality for all organisations, whether public or private, is that all business processes need to be optimised.
With the world economy contracting by three per cent in the next 18 months every organisation must manage information as an asset throughout its operations, developing leaner information processes to deliver better intelligence. This will underpin the retention of competitive advantage during tough times.
As well as the global economic depression, there are a number of specific information risks and threats to organisational performance, arising from the fact that:
The volume of information maintained is doubling every 18 months;
Forty per cent of a knowledge professional’s time is spent trying to manage or repurpose unstructured data; and
Eighty per cent of this information is created and managed by individuals at the desktop.1
The days of accepting certain overheads arising from information management are over, from costly storage of paper records to poor intelligence development, which limits collaboration and improvement. Information management and its practitioners across all industries must now become lean. Few information professionals have really embraced improvement as a way of life. This has to change. Information professionals must now get lean.
But what is lean and why is it relevant? Lean is all about leveraging assets to gain the most value, a key activity in the current economic downturn. Lean is basically all about getting the right things to the right place, at the right time, in the right quantity, while minimising waste and being flexible and open to change. This is based on improving business flows whilst reducing costs arising from operations to a minimum level. For example, the inability to share business knowledge amongst information workers due to technical limitations within an organisation is a clear example of waste. This has profound implications for information professionals, who are still struggling with risks and issues relating to information flows across departments and services.
Lean information management (LIM) is the latest development that marries lean flow manufacturing process concepts with excellence in information and knowledge management practices. Separately, both practices enable businesses to operate efficiently and effectively. However, when they are combined the results can be dramatic.
At present information professionals struggle to deliver improvement using current techniques such as information auditing. Even technology can often merely mirror poorly functioning processes in a digital environment. LIM solves the conundrum of how to meet complex compliance requirements with the need to reduce costs and deliver improvement. LIM centres on using the minimum amount of resources – people, materials and capital – to produce solutions and deliver them on time to customers. It is a team-based approach to identifying and eliminating waste through continuous improvement, by flowing the product at the pull of the customer in pursuit of perfection.
Vince Lombardi, the legendary American sports coach, once said: “We are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we won’t catch it because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it because in the process we will catch excellence”.2
Why improve? No one working within the public or private sector can realistically expect to dismiss the need to improve every single day during these recessionary times. The rising prices of commodities and services and shrinking economic capacity of many major industrial economies makes the drive for improvement a key requirement for all organisations. As competition from a more globalised world economy increases, the need for innovation and cost reduction becomes an ever more pronounced strand of corporate planning and strategy implementation.
Information professionals should not consider themselves immune from improvement initiatives. The cultivation of information and knowledge should be central to improvement programmes. Ever since Peter Drucker introduced the term ‘knowledge work’ in the 1960s, when analysing the development of a global knowledge society, the key task of managing information has been the foundation stone for organisational performance.3 Today, most staff in the corporate world are knowledge workers. Rather than manufacturing or making things, information professionals create new information from data and reconfigure it to yield knowledge and competitive advantage.
As financial and related services have thrived, the value of information management skills has increased and the need for information literacy has grown quickly. Organisations that have failed to maintain a skills set across their workforce now face a problem that is only soluble by rethinking information strategy. Information must now be leveraged for the greatest possible advantage at the least cost to organisations.
This requires information professionals to improve organisational productivity. Businesses are always on the lookout for ways to improve their bottom line. This has never been more critical than in these difficult financial times. Approaches to business improvement come and go but improving the bottom line never goes out of style. However, information professionals are not well versed in promoting current and future productivity in comparison with other professionals. This can and must change as soon as possible.
Introducing the idea of ‘lean’
Information professionals must undertake a major transformation. This transformation must embrace the notion of acquiring a lean philosophy, where waste and value become the key totems of any improvement projects undertaken to improve the use of information as organisational currency.
There are a range of different definitions of ‘lean’ but for the purposes of this publication the focus will be on any “organisational practices that consider the expenditure of resources for any goal other than the creation of value for the end customer to be wasteful, and thus a target for elimination”.4
‘How lean is our organisation?’ is a common question these days amongst senior management seeking to implement a transformation programme. In simple terms, this can be translated as an inquiry into whether activities that information professionals are undertaking are contributing to the achievement of corporate goals. Or, whether there is waste in the services and products that reduces operational performance.
Lean methods often seek to focus all staff in the organisation on meeting the external customer’s requirements. They require continuous comparison of the organisation against perfection and must involving everyone in the achievement of perfection. There are of course internal customers whose voice needs to be heard and this requires a careful balance to be struck between compliance and demand for many organisations. This requires the clarification of all activities that might add value to products and services, improving all the existing value-adding activities in the organisation and stopping those that do not add any value. This is really about simplifying and improving the process flow, reducing the number of touches and amount of waste. This sets a framework for the lean philosophy for any organisation.
The overall goal of lean approaches is to increase profit by reducing cost and increasing productivity. This is driven by eliminating all the waste in the organisational system. The muda variety of waste is often described as the set of seven categories shown Table 1, below.
The presence of all of these types of waste in an organisational system was correctly viewed as having a negative impact on lead time, cost, and quality. For example, the unnecessary transport of material around a production plant from storage to production line often leads to wasteful motion.
Information wastes exist in a variety of forms from needless forms to duplicate data systems housing the same information over and over again, adding no value to the customers’ use of services.
Value to waste ratio
Taiichi Ohno, improvement guru for
For example, the movement of material around poorly designed factory floors was viewed as a non-value adding activity. For information professionals, elongated search and retrieval of key corporate information from poorly designed information systems constitutes the same kind of non-value add activity that must be targeted for elimination. The focus of lean is to eliminate waste and reduce incidental or non-value adding work.
Lean and information management orthodoxy
Lean is all about leveraging assets to gain the most value. This is based on improving business flows whilst reducing costs arising from operations to a minimum level. For example, the inability to share business knowledge due to technical limitations within an organisation is a clear example of waste. Lean is basically all about getting the right things, to the right place, at the right time, in the right quantity while minimising waste and being flexible and open to change.
For many progressive organisations, getting better control of paper and electronic-based information processes and enterprise information management starts with LIM.
LIM draws on best practices from a range of sectors to create a new approach to raising the value and flow of business information and knowledge. The techniques integrate excellence in the capture and realisation of business information with innovative tools to enhance flow and value including visual management and rapid action reviews. This integrated toolset can offer information professionals new ways of tacking risks and threats that have impeded information strategy for many years.
LIM also places a specific focus on value across an organisation, which information professionals have had little success in achieving to date. Value evidently has many dimensions but in the eyes of the customers, shareholders and stakeholders it can mean delivering processes and services that identify the value stream and eliminate waste. LIM can also provide information and support for the development of new products and services, providing organisations with the opportunity to enter into new markets. The aspiration of LIM is to deliver continuous improvement in pursuit of perfection in all activities.
Towards lean KM
Information does not exist in isolation. The transformation of data and information into intelligence and knowledge has been a vital part of the management of the information life cycle.
KM has sometimes garnered negative press in recent years with a great deal of bile reserved for some of the more curious knowledge tools. However, KM relates directly to LIM as it aids the achievement of transformation to deliver a lean information management vision. The need for a focus on value and flow introduces techniques to capture these requirements, which are often absent from information professionals toolsets. KM therefore provides some key supporting tools and techniques to aid information professionals to deliver improvement across all lean activities.
Building a lean KM programme
KM projects can be adapted to inculcate the lean mindset in specific information projects. These can deliver value and improve flow across organisations currently struggling to share information across enclaves within services. The potential lean projects for managing business knowledge could include some of the approaches listed below.
Deploying a push/pull review
Pull systems within information services are often hard to identify due to the high level of forecasting and demand planning that exists within organisations. A lack of contact with customers (from information professionals) and unclear expectations means that forecasting is relied upon, rather than the more efficient pull systems of the past.
This sets a plan, often ahead of detailed knowledge being produced of the demand for services. For information professionals the need to consider pull theme has meant too much work has been prescribed by mistaken ideas about best practice, particularly in relation to the production and implementation of information policy standards.
Within a LIM project it is possible to begin to focus on pull and value streams. Using pull, downstream tasks pull from upstream tasks to even out capacity and demand. A classic example relates to the work of operatives within a customer service call centre. This is pull led with the number of calls received and placed on hold pulling other operatives to take waiting calls. When the number of calls falls below a specified point, those people return to other tasks.
Using Kanban to develop IT systems requirement
Kanban has been used extensively in systems development to draw on the pull from customers for improvement in technology performance. Too much development is scheduled in planning periods that take no account of demand and related factors. This means that arbitrary deadlines are set for technology development which does not correspond to the efforts required to redesign ? for example, email optimisation systems. Kanban offers a chance to drop production schedules and work with continuous flow. Setting up a simple Kanban system starts to focus the team on the cycle-time of delivered work and provides a way to detect and begin to resolve bottlenecks within the design of any information technology system.
Fishbone analysis of information risks
By adopting a new approach to information risk management using a Fishbone analysis, it is possible to capitalise on the current intelligence being held in systems and processes. This requires a significant transition from information to intelligence based, on identifying root causes for problems.
Information risk management provides a structured approach to the management of threats and opportunities facing an organisation. It is vital to use a tool to enable information professionals to identify, analyse, evaluate, and control information risks.
By using Fishbone techniques information professionals can highlight the risks and impact of information threats and engage corporate planners.
It is vital to use the Fishbone technique to catalyse a debate within an organisation to provide deeper insights and information professionals should involve a cross-section of the organisation in the prioritisation and integration of information risks.
Implementing these initiatives requires a clear approach. However, there are a number of key factors for success that information professionals need to consider, including:
Essential new knowledge gained by the team should be based upon hands-on learning. These techniques can provide results right on the spot and this becomes a huge motivator for staff involved;
Break down those information silos. All staff have to own and deliver changes;
Information professionals need a number of internal change agents who are committed to (and knowledgeable about) LIM;
Constant encouragement of individuals by managers along the LIM journey will provide a step shift change in culture which is fundamental to a truly lean information management strategy, because people will now be starting to see problems as opportunities, which they can solve with simple skills.
These techniques must not be about ‘point’ improvements. This is about continuous improvement across information services and hopefully across organisations.
Working without waste
Working without waste is a vision that all staff can agree is a worthy pursuit. The commitment to reducing waste and getting lean will require the establishment of clear requirements and measurable goals and the willingness to learn and share best practice across the silos that exist within most organisations.
Other outcomes from LIM include:
Increased communication at all levels of the organisation. This is a key benefit of LIM because it promotes conversation, a killer activity for improvement programmes;
Reducing costs, improving quality and delivery in a safe environment. The reduction of costs is key headline for organisations. And, with concomitant quality, improvements can provide a platform for transformation. In addition there reduction of waste and management of activities can enhance safety and security in offices greatly.
Beginning improvements immediately and empowering workers to make improvements themselves. Raising business literacy and information handling skills can be tremendously empowering for staff and promote greater innovation and collaboration.
The end of the start…
Lean is a journey. Information professionals have to challenge current information management orthodoxies in order to remain or to increase relevance to organisational planning. Lean provides the techniques to do this beginning with a change in overall philosophy and approach to managing business information. If the decision is made to go lean information professionals have at least four starting points to consider.
Option one – philosophy
Will lean information management become the central philosophy guiding all activities? This will require information professionals to work with senior management teams, focusing on how to think lean in terms of corporate information strategy. This includes how to ask the right questions, and when to communicate to the relevant parts of the organisation.
Option two – process
Information professionals may wish to consider lean information management in terms of process. It is possible to define an organisation as a set of value streams and start by optimising one. This can be taken to senior management to demonstrate the power of lean information management.
Option three – people
Lean information management requires a shift in mindset that can only begin if staff understand that this is not just another management fad. Communication and dialogue can aid the introduction of lean information management to the most cynical of staff.
Option four – problem solve
Information professionals might adopt a bold strategy using lean’s relentless curiosity about errors and defects. This must be combined with the appropriate toolset around root-causing and putting right, then implemented via small projects under the banner of ‘right first time’ or ‘error free’. This provides powerful case studies with which to influence the rest of the organisation.
There is no prescribed starting point and information professionals need to consider the state of play within their individual organisations. Which blend information professionals choose will depend on what risks and issues are presenting themselves to an organisation. Once the decision is made it is then possible to begin the lean information management journey.
Robin Smith is head of information governance at Northampton General Hospital NHS Trust. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Source: Gartner research review. Available at: www.gartner.com
2. Available at http://thinkexist.com/quotation/perfection_is_not_attainable-but_if_we_chase/340941.html
3. Source: Smith, R., ‘Information overload’ research study, NGH, unpublished. 2010.
4. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lean_manufacturing