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Creativity Before Capital: An Overlooked Lean Principle

Author: Russ Aikman

Posted: June 2021

Most Lean Six Sigma practitioners focus their improvement efforts on applying tried and true lean tools to eliminate waste such as Work Simplification, Process Balancing, Mistake Proofing, Visual Management, and 5S. All of these tools can be very effective, and they certainly have their place. Yet the application of such tools is often done in a routine way, resulting in somewhat basic solutions that miss out on the potential for truly unique outcomes.

The key thing missing from such solutions is the degree of creativity used. An often overlooked lean principle is Creativity Before Capital. In other words, before spending money on a typical solution (buying equipment, hiring staff, working overtime), try using existing equipment and employees.

In reality, even creative solutions may require some investment. Yet, often that investment is quite small in comparison to more traditional approaches. As Lean Six Sigma practitioners, it is our job to minimize waste in all that we do – and that includes the cost associated with solutions.

To illustrate the value of creativity I’d like to share stories about two individuals who used innovative methods to address challenging problems. Both were mayors of large cities in South America. Jaime Lerner (1937-2021) served as mayor of Curitiba, Brazil for three terms (1971-75, 1979-84, 1989-92). Formally trained as an architect, he also served as the governor of the state of Parana in Brazil (1995-2002). Antanas Mockus (born 1952) has degrees in mathematics and philosophy. He served two terms as mayor of Bogota, Columbia (1995-1998, 2001-2003).

First, consider the challenges faced by Jaime Lerner after being elected mayor of Curitiba in the early 1970s. The city had issues with poor public transit, piles of garbage in the city and a highly polluted river, plus risk of flooding. With a limited budget, he knew the traditional approach would not work to address these problems. Here is a partial list of the issues faced and his innovative solutions:

ProblemSolution
The city was bordered by a floodplain, but had limited money for a levee systemThe city purchased the floodplain, and made it into a series of city parks
The city had little money to maintain the new parkland (i.e., to mow the grass)“Municipal sheep” were used to keep vegetation under control. Wool from the sheep was used to fund children’s programs.
Garbage was being dumped into the bay of the river running through the cityFisherman were paid (by the pound) to retrieve garbage, giving them an income source outside of the fishing season and saving millions in cleanup costs
Poor areas of the city were not accessible for garbage trucks to pick up trash due to narrow streets, resulting in piles of garbageThe city offered to swap bags of groceries for bags of trash, resulting in healthier citizens and cleaner neighborhoods

In each of these examples, money was spent but in a limited yet focused manner to address a specific problem.

When Antanas Mockus became mayor of Bogota in 1995 the city had a reputation as one of the most violent, crime-ridden cities in the world. Citizens were fed up with corruption in the government, and ready for change.

Mockus tried a series of innovative methods to improve the quality of life for everyone. Like Lerner, he used methods to change the environment of citizens in order to change behavior. He also used subtle psychological ‘nudges’ to get citizens to think differently about their actions. Many of his methods are associated with behavioral economics. A partial list of his methods include:

ProblemSolution
Jaywalking was rampant, resulting in traffic snarls and numerous fatalitiesThe city hired 420 mimes to make fun of jaywalkers. Stars were painted on the road where fatalities had occurred. This resulted in a change in behavior, including a drop in traffic fatalities by over 50%.
Drought conditions caused a major water shortageMockus filmed a commercial taking a shower where he turned off water as he soaped to promote water conservation. The city implemented economic incentives to help lower water bills, and replaced the busy signal on telephone calls to the voice of Columbian pop star Shakira saying ‘Thank you for saving water’. Water use dropped by 40%.
Crime was rampant, and women didn’t feel safe to go out at nightThe city sponsored free open-air concerts on a “Night Without Men” where men stayed home to watch their children and women went out. The police force was all-female during this evening. About 700,000 women participated. This event was repeated periodically.
People complained about rude and difficult taxi driversMockus asked people to call his office if they encountered a good, kind taxi driver. He organized a group of 150 such drivers – he named the group the Knights of the Zebra – to get their ideas on how to improve the behavior of bad drivers.

Here is a telling quote from Mockus: “The distribution of knowledge is the key contemporary task … Knowledge empowers people. If people know the rules and are sensitized by art, humour, and creativity, they are much more likely to accept change.”

For more on Mockus, here is a short article about him from a professor at Harvard where he spoke back in 2004: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2004/03/academic-turns-city-into-a-social-experiment/

My challenge to you: When your team gets to the Improve Phase be sure to set aside time for ‘out of the box’ thinking to allow for development of more creative solution ideas.

Want to learn how to develop more creative solutions? Watch for a future blog on this topic.


More about Russ Aikman:

Russ is the LSS Program Manager at TMAC, and started the program in 2003. He is a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt with over 30 years of experience working in a wide variety of industries, and with small firms up to Fortune 500 companies. He has taught dozens of LSS classes from Yellow Belt up to Master Black Belt. He has also coached hundreds of LSS practitioners on their projects and advised managers on their LSS program. Before joining TMAC he worked at George Group, the first firm to integrate Lean and Six Sigma.

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