As the legal services market faces more competition, legal service firms need to be able to deliver more with less. The concept of delivering more with less, or Lean Thinking was first coined in the early 1990′s and is associated with the publication of ‘The Machine that Changed the World’ by James Womack, Daniel Roos and Daniel Jones (1991). In this, their first book in a series of bestsellers (Lean Thinking and Lean Solutions are more recent titles by the authors), they describe how post war Japanese businesses successfully grew and developed capabilities, products and cultures that enabled them to compete successfully against their western counterparts in gaining market share and production efficiencies.
Lean has now been applied in many different business contexts and the approach is widely used in service businesses such as contact centres, public sectors organisations including the health service and also financial services (although the reader as a client of these services may question this). With over 70% of the UK GDP attributed to service businesses, the ‘lean’ opportunity is clearly evident and should be a major consideration for law firms. However, the utilisation of this improvement approach directly into service environments does require some translation.
In its simplest form, Lean can be described as a set of “tools” that assist in the identification and steady elimination of waste (the Japanese call this muda). However it is more than a simple set of tools, a Lean mindset (Lean Thinking) focuses on getting the right products/services, to the right place, at the right time, in the right quantity to achieve a perfect flow of value to the client. Lean aims to make legal work simple enough to understand, to do and to manage. The tools provide different ways to identify, understand and remove certain types of problems but they don’t solve them. It is up to practice managers and legal professionals to highlight the underlying cause of many types of problems and then determine a context specific solution.
The tools on their own do not define lean; ‘lean is both technical and emotional’. There are many examples of Lean tool implementation without sustained benefit and these are often blamed on weak understanding of the Lean culture. The cultural and managerial aspects of Lean are just as important as, if not more important than, the actual tools or principles themselves. When implementing Lean, the key question is not, ‘what tools do we need to use?’, but ‘how do we understand our business as a system within a system and how can we engage our employees so that they can help us to improve it?’
Over the next month or so I will be addressing the key principles of Lean Thinking and outlining how law firms might adopt a Lean approach. If you have used Lean within a legal practice or are considering becoming a Lean practice then I’d be interested in your thoughts? If you want to attend one of our sessions introducing legal practices to LEAN, go here.