Lean is not tools, nor is it systems or principles. It is not metrics or value stream maps or customer satisfaction. Lean is not any one thing — it is how everything works together. That is at the heart of an operating system. Lean is not implemented; it is a journey. An operating system is the culmination of the effort, and understanding how an organization’s operating system works is crucial to making lean a part of it.
Can you clearly describe how your organization or function operates? Beyond simple one-word adjectives such as “disorganized” or “efficient,” it is difficult to articulate how a company runs its businesses. Yet the trait of any world-class organization is an ingrained system to coordinate actions, execute daily work routines, learn and make improvements — in short, its operating system. In these types of organizations, the operating system is the engine that drives the company.
Many companies look for a silver bullet. They jump on the latest quality fad, the newest improvement program or the best employee engagement practice. Leaders benchmark the organization and magically appear to be making immediate and remarkable improvements. They attempt to distill their efforts and create a program to adopt the new approach. Despite their best intentions, they never realize the broad, sweeping improvements they had expected.
The adopting of new tools and new methods in isolation — even those that appear very effective — is insufficient. Organizations also need to build a consistent, comprehensive system that provides context and structure to operations on a daily basis — one that will accommodate improvements on an ongoing basis. Most world-class companies have built their own unique operating system. Your organization should develop one as well.
What Is An Operating System?
The framework of an operating system integrates:
1. Principles (to align thinking and build culture);
2. Systems (to process vital work, outline the way work gets done, and connect the organization);
3. Tools (to generate new approaches and execute the thinking); and
4. Evaluation (to understand where the company is against where it wants to be in the future).
These four elements incorporate a critical fifth dimension: consistency. Taken together, the elements create a common way of thinking, operating and improving the business. They also establish a standard set of practices for all employees.
An operating system is among the most misunderstood concepts in business today. When individuals are asked to help identify operating systems, they point to the IT department (computers), a list of lean or six-sigma tools, organizational structure, and vision and mission statements. While each of these individual pieces is important, they must all be connected as parts of a much larger system.
An Operating System Aligns “How” with “What”
To create alignment, coordination and understanding, companies must create a shared agreement about what they plan to accomplish (goals, metrics, targets and strategies) and how to operate (methods, processes and practices) to achieve the objectives.
Forming a consensus about what to do is critical, since failure to do so leads to an organization without direction. Many companies spend a considerable amount of time and effort creating agreements about goals and objectives; unfortunately, the conversation typically ends there. Each department or function is left to its own devices to move from the current state to the target state. In the worst cases, departments move in directions counter to one another.
An operating system is the process through which a company reaches agreement about how to operate and improve. It is how objectives and tactics are executed day-in and day-out. An operating system creates the infrastructure and framework for employees to use to reach the company’s collective target state.