What can the church learn from Lean Manufacturing?

After the Second World War, Japanese manufacturing, especially the car industry dominated. They were able to produce in volume, quickly and to quality standards that put western manufacturers to shame. Gradually other manufacturers around the world tried to learn how the Japanese did this and so we began to learn about “Lean Manufacturing”[1]

After a while, people began to apply the thinking into other sectors including service and after sales support and even the supermarket industry (Tesco at the height of its powers employed Lean techniques).

Can we learn anything from Lean Manufacturing?

It’s important at the outset to say what Lean is and what Lean isn’t. People often associated lean with “mean” how could you cut your staff, your costs etc. Now it’s true that those who successfully applied the thinking did tend to see lower costs but not by cutting staff or wages.

The point was that lean was about cutting waste and waste meant anything that got in the way and wasn’t essential to the process of getting your goods to market. Waste might include delays in the process, quality failures requiring rework, transporting part finished goods around a factory and manufacturing in large batch sizes.[2] You are always asking questions like “Does this activity add value?” and “What stops/delays us from getting to the end goal?”

When we moved the thinking into the service sector we realised two things.

  1. That service is often about using and sharing knowledge (e.g. the person on the IT help desk gives advice). Often people try to hold onto knowledge/ Knowledge equals power. So you get bottlenecks and delays because one key person holds onto expertise or an individual isn’t authorised to share information.
  2. That often service industries fail to help effectively because they confuse real demand with failure demand.[3] What this means is that every request for goods or services is measured as demand. However, if I have to ring up a call centre because my computer is broke then this is demand caused by a failure to meet the original demand. Call centres often measure their success by how many calls they process and how quickly but if they don’t sort out the root problem then it’s never success, it’s just increasing volumes of failure. For example, if I go to the doctor and get some medicine and it doesn’t cure the problem, every repeat visit until we get the right diagnosis and treatment is a measure of failure.[4]

Now here are a couple of thoughts for churches. Don’t worry, I’m not about to suggest you bring in the consultants to process map your church or time how long it takes to get a coffee.

However a couple of suggestions.

First of all, when you look at Jesus and then to his early followers, it’s clear that it did not take long for them to get to the heart of the matter. The Gospel was central and up front in their conversations. I wonder, if we were to ask a few people the following questions wht answers we would get?

  1. How many Christians did you have to meet before you started to hear the Gospel?
  2. How many times did you have to meet with Christians before you started to find out what the Gospel is.

By the way, I’m not saying that you need to have gone through Two Ways to Live within the first 5 minutes of meeting a non-Christian. I’m not saying don’t build relationships. However I would suggest that very early on, people should start to get some inkling not only that we are Christians but what it means to be a Christian. For example, I heard a testimony this week where the person had met a friend and very early on the friend had talked about having a relationship with God. Now the person who heard this was intrigued. They’d never heard that you could have a relationship with God before. They started to ask questions.  In our community café, it means for example that we don’t just give advice to people. We are ready to pray. But it also means that we talk with them about why we pray and what we pray so that they know this isn’t just some vague platitude or superstition.

Secondly, here’s a thought. To what extent do we batch discipleship? I want to suggest that we batch discipleship when we build the majority of it around classes, courses programmes and events. Events like our The Difference Festival and our Christmas carol services give us a great opportunity to tell people the good news and to invite them to church. However, I hope no-one has to wait until Easter or Christmas before they hear anything about the Gospel. Courses like Christianity Explored and Alpha are brilliant. But again, the risk is that someone has to wait until there are enough people interested before we can run a course. That’s one of the reasons why we created First Look and Rooted. The idea with these courses is that whilst we can runt hem as formal events actually you can start looking at them 1-1 with someone as soon as they express interest. And this should feed into our thinking about the whole of Christian life not just conversion are we geared up for engaging with people 1-1 at the stage they are at?

So, please don’t come up with some gimmick like “Lean Evangelism” I fear that someone somewhere probably has done. But do take time to consider the lean manufacturers and be challenged. What stops us from making disciples, what distracts us?

[1] Sometimes referred to as Just In Time (JIT) or The Toyota Production System.

[2] The idea here is that if you make 10 widgets in a batch then widget 1 has to wait until widget 10 has to go to wait until widget 10 is ready before it can move to the next stage of the process .  The aim is to make it economical to manufacture in batch sizes of 1.

[3] This point was identified by a consultant called John Seddon of Vanguard Consultancy.

[4] That’s the big problem with waiting time targets. The important thing is not whether I wait 10 minutes or 1 week to be seen but whether when I get seen, the problem is diagnosed and treated correctly.