To illustrate a point about Lean, I need to tell you the sad story of a failed cake.

Sylvia was hosting a big celebration for her parents’ 50th anniversary. She ordered a delicious cake from the Sweetie-Sweets Bakery, to be delivered at exactly 2 pm on Saturday.

Here’s what happened:

  • Sal, who was in charge of ordering supplies for the bakery, bought a shipment of flour. Sal’s primary job objective was to make sure the bakery stayed profitable, so, in line with his objective, he bought flour from a low-cost vendor.
  • But the low-cost flour had lower protein content, so Sue, the baker, had to bake the cake three times, revising the recipe, to make it conform to the quality standards that were her primary objective.
  • And, because Sue took the extra time to bake a quality cake, Sam, the delivery guy, had to drive like a madman to get the cake to Sylvia on time. He fulfilled his primary objective of on-time delivery, but in the process the cake got jostled.

So, Sylvia got her cake, and she got it on time, but it was shmooshed and didn’t quite taste like the earlier cakes she’d ordered before. She vowed to use a different bakery next time.

What went wrong? Each employee achieved their particular objective, yet the greater objective of customer satisfaction failed.

The Value Stream

One of the most important concepts in Lean is the value stream: the sequence of all the steps needed to deliver value to a customer.

A value stream is the sequence of all the steps needed to deliver value. When you apply Lean methods, your value stream becomes more than just a collection of activities and events. It becomes a highly coordinated, well-sequenced set of steps that delivers value without waste, and, therefore, achieves far greater results.

A Big Word for a Common Problem

When value streams are ineffective, it’s usually because the individuals and groups involved in the stream do what’s best for them and their small part of the value stream, not what’s best for the stream overall.

Remember the cake story? Even though each person fulfilled their own objective, collectively, they failed to deliver the required value to the customer. It wasn’t their fault. They were very committed to doing good work. They simply didn’t (or couldn’t) see past their part in the stream and how it affected the overall outcome.

In Lean we call this “sub-optimization.”

Here are some examples of it in value streams. Maybe you’ve experienced some of these yourself:

  • Purchasing chooses a vendor that’s already approved, not necessarily the best one for situation.
  • An instructional designer doesn’t clearly understand the organizational objective and includes a ton of unnecessary content just to be sure all the bases are covered.
  • EHS schedules training to accommodate their availability, not the learners’ work schedules.
  • The company recently purchased an expensive LMS, so everything is now e-learning regardless if it’s the right solution for the topic or the learners.

The Bottom Line

What can you do to avoid sub-optimization?

The Lean approach is to appoint one person as the value stream’s “owner” and give them the authority to manage and optimize the entire stream.

Working toward the larger organizational goal, the value stream owner can facilitate activities like Gemba Walks and Value Stream Mapping to eliminate training waste and add maximum learning value. These particular skills are covered in our Lean Knowledge Transfer Green and Black Belt certifications.

How Much Can You Accomplish by Taking Control of a Learning Value Stream?

One of our Lean Knowledge Transfer Black Belts took over ownership of a value stream and his efforts resulted in nearly one million dollars in savings . If you’d like to read the case study, you can find it on our Resources page.

Let’s Ride!

Todd Hudson, Head Maverick