An article in last Sunday’s NYTimes addressed the value of corporations staying small. In contrast to the early days of the internet when "get big, fast" was the mantra for all firms (especially internet startups), there’s a growing recognition that there are real benefits to thinking small.
Although the article doesn’t address Lean, the message is familiar to any student of lean processes. For example,
Decentralizing the hierarchy opens the door to creativity, giving
workers the leeway they need to make significant decisions without
first jumping through executive management hoops. “The idea,” says [Philip Rosedale, founder and chairman of Linden Lab, the company that built Second Life],
“is to enable a creative environment where there’s a good degree of
And experimentation, after all, is what Toyota is all about: running controlled experiments in an effort to continually improve the production process.
The article goes on to argue that one of the major advantages of thinking small is the increased opportunity for small group collaboration. Although the author doesn’t recognize the key features of a value stream management approach, one of the companies she profiles clearly does:
At Avocent, an information technology management company based in Huntsville, Ala.,
customers, product developers and testers had gotten to the point that
they rarely interacted. Each group felt that it lost control of a
project too early in its progress. So, in March 2007, the company
revamped development so that members of all three groups would work on
the same team, following a project from start to finish and making
changes as needed. With customers, programmers and testers working
virtually side by side, Avocent tripled production without adding
The focus on the customer hasn’t just increased production, either. It’s reduced the waste of rework:
By making sure products in development meet customer needs each step of
the way, Avocent has been able to avoid spending weeks correcting
errors in the final product, says Ben Grimes, chief technology officer.
I don’t think that a company has to be small to orient itself around the value stream and focus on the customer. There are plenty of large customers that manage the same trick. But if thinking small is a more palatable way for companies to give up command and control management techniques in favor of a lean respect for people, so be it. As Seth Godin says, "small is the new big."