”It's time to bring more scientific evidence to the lean debate”

The 1st of February we are hosting a seminar with Professor Torbjørn Netland. He will guide is through new research on how we can make Lean Transformations work. In this brief interview, we start to tap into some of the topics that Torbjørn will cover.

It all started with pallets of brochures that suddenly shipped to one of the subsidaries of Volvo Aero in Norway. It wasn't the pallets or the actual content of the brochures that caught the attention of Torbjørn Netland, who at that time was about to start his research journey. The brochures described the Volvo Production System and the intent was to spread Volvo's ways of working to their partners. Although Norwegians have a lot of trust in Swedes, not every approach is successful when deploying lean.

– Actually, I was planning to study something quite different, says—now Professor—Torbjørn Netland. But that incident was the starting shot of a my journey into the fascinating world of lean transformations.

To cut right to the chase, which are your top learnings in that journey?
– First, “lean people” are often open people. They like to share their work and ideas and are usually oriented towards learning and development. This, of course, is to great benefit for us who do research in this area. I have met this openness across all nations and industries I have worked with—automotive, process industries, and services. Let me emphasize that my journey started in Volvo AB, a company I deeply value for their openness and hospitality. I think companies that nurture such openness are well prepared for the “future of lean”.

Torbjörn Netland
Professor Torbjørn Netland.

– Second, although lean is not a new concept, we surprisingly do still not know much about how to succeed with its deployment and sustain it over a long period. There are many good opinions and a lot of anecdotal evidence, but we have not been very good in taking our own medicine and apply scientific thinking to the management of lean. For example, lean largely remained a “belief system” – which naturally can be hard to sell to skeptical senior managers or people outside our discipline. I think it is about time to bring more scientific evidence to the lean debate.

– Third, lean means a lot of different things to different people. There is a much confusion and a lot of debates about words and concepts. I therefore think it is essential to develop company-specific production systems – some kind of tailoring of lean and its vocabulary to the context. Ultimately, for me, lean is about creating an improvement culture, which is a titanic but not impossible task. Luckily, there are several actions and “tactics” that senior managers and lean coordinators can use to put their firms on a successful lean journey.

You have been at highly respected NTNU in Trondheim and are now professor at one of the top-ten universities worldwide. What is the culture at ETH Zürich and how important is that in order to make innovative research?
– I have only been just over a year at ETH Zurich, but has been struck by two features that I believe drive the impressive ranking of this university: With the one hand, ETH gives a large amount of autonomy to professors and supports it with generous funding. With the other hand, ETH leaders hold all employees to high standards and expect them to deliver accordingly. This means that ETH aims to create a performance culture powered by trust and empowerment, which in many ways shows exemplary lean leadership behaviors.

What is the next step in your research, do you ever plan to study something completely different?
– The lion share of my research will continue to be within the area of lean and operational excellence over the next years. But in the Chair of Production and Operations Management we right now also study the application of drones in manufacturing, the effect of 3D printing on supply chains, and the concept of a digital twin for improving factory operations. Something completely different? I don’t think so. I am passionate about creating better operations.

You are one of the two editors of the new Shingo-prize-winning Routledge Companion to Lean Management. How can practitioners learn from a 700 page book?
– I gladly admit that the Companion on lean is not very lean itself. But each of its chapters actually are. The book consists of 40 chapterswritten by 72 experts from 15 countries—that outline the current status, opportunities and challenges, and future prospects of lean across many application areas and industries; from automotive, via healthcare, to higher education. John Shook described the Companion as an “almost cyclopedia of lean”, and that would be a good description of what we aimed to do. In the last chapter, my co-editor Daryl Powell and I tried to summarise the commonalities of lean that cut through all the other 39 chapters; we concluded that lean is essentially about 3 “Ls”: Leadership for long-term learning”.

Finally, what can the attendees expect to learn at the full-day seminar with you in Göteborg?
–I will touch on a series of issues that have been central to my own research, such as: What to expect from a lean program? What tactics help implement lean? How should assessments be designed and used? What is the future of lean?

Join us for a deep dive Master Meeting with Professor Netland

Torbjørn Netland is a highly appreciated speaker and lecturer, well-known for his ability to communicate science-based learnings.

Read more about him on his blog www.better-operations.com and welcome to join us on the full-day Master Meeting on February 1st in Gothenburg.