How to apply Lean methodology to IT

How to apply Lean methodology to IT

Nigel Brabyn of Nelson Forests sets out to discover double handling of data and information ‘log jams’.

When Nigel Brabyn joined a 10-day business trip to Japan last May, it was to see how the famed Lean methodology can be applied to Nelson Forests – but from an information systems perspective.

Brabyn is business performance analyst of the company, which manages 78,000 hectares of high quality radiata pine plantations in the Nelson and Marlborough regions, and owns and operates the Kaituna Sawmill near Blenheim.

He moved to this role – the equivalent of a CIO – over five years ago. Before this, he was information and technology manager for the same company.

Lean methodology espouses continuous improvement of all processes by eliminating waste in everything the company does.

Brabyn says the company's managing director, Lees Seymour, attended a conference last year, and met some people who were implementing the Lean Manufacturing System.

Brabyn says the company looked at it as a possible way of reducing costs and to implement continuous improvement.

Simply Lean, which had earlier run courses on the system at Nelson Forests, suggested the company executives join a ‘Lean tour’ organised by its partner in Japan, Shinka Management.

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Nigel Brabyn at the Gifu Auto Body Training Centre
Nigel Brabyn at the Gifu Auto Body Training Centre

It is about eliminating waste. From an information point of view, don’t collect and store information you don’t need.

Nigel Brabyn, Nelson Forests

First stop for the group was a seminar on Japanese business etiquette, says Brabyn. "We visited two or three companies a day and attended sessions at the Toyota Training Centre."

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A lot of the factories they visited were suppliers to Toyota, but none were in the primary industries or involved in forestry.

These included Ito En Factory, which produces green tea and coffee, Toyota Motomachi Assembly Factory and Toyota Kaikan Museum, Gifu Auto Body Sue Factory (Seat Track Manufacturing), Metal One Gifu Service Centre (Distribution Facility), Suzaki Factory (Pressed Components) and a food factory, Nissin, which produces instant noodles.

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“There is no such thing called Lean in Japan,” he says. The term was coined by the Western consultants’ view of the Japanese management system.

If you talk to people in Japan, he says, Lean tackles the concepts of continuous improvement, and in particular in Toyota which started what is now known as the TPS or Toyota Production System.

One of the key principles of the Toyota Production System is “never make anything that you cannot sell,” says Brabyn. “Don’t do stuff that is not of value to the customer downstream.”

“For forestry, it is a little bit abstract trying to take that Lean system which is very much a factory management system and convert it into our forestry business,” he says.

“You really have to get at the essence of the system and look at what it is about. It is about eliminating waste.

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Data log jams

“From an information point of view, don’t collect and store information you don’t need.

“We manufacture logs, the forests are really our factory,” he states. “But the flow of information needs to be efficient for that factory to work well."

At the moment he is doing a lot of value stream mapping which is something that comes out of the Lean dictionary, he says.

He explains: “We are going through the flow of information and seeing how it moves through the organisation and looking for log jams in the system.

“Where is the information held up? Where is the waste of time and effort going on within that process? And how do we streamline it so information can flow better and you are not double handling information?

“We were already doing it, we just did not call it Lean.”

“It is a valuable exercise to look at how other people do things,” he says when asked whether he would advise his information technology peers to do the same tour.

“You have got to have a really broad mind when you do it,” he says.

But he notes, “It is always interesting to compare yourself with other people and how they work.”

He also says the continuous improvement part of the methodology was something the company has already been doing.

Nigel Brabyn of Nelson Forests
Nigel Brabyn of Nelson Forests

It is always interesting to compare yourself with other people and how they work

“We just needed to do better,” he says.

In IT, for instance, new ideas are always coming out, and some of them were implemented before but for some reason were discontinued.

“That comes back to having a more disciplined approach to how we approach it.”

One of the key points he got from the trip was the way the Japanese approach to the business.

“They write down processes and stick to them. When they want improvement, they improve it in a very structured way.

“Whereas, with a lot of Kiwis companies, it is a little bit ad hoc. We may write down systems but we do not always follow them.”

He says the Japanese firms also apply the number 8 wire mentality – a term for improvising or solving problems using more readily available resources, a reference to the ubiquitous Number 8 fencing wire.

“But they call it low cost, no cost solution.”

Lean in practice

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Brabyn says among the Lean techniques they use now is the daily stand-up meetings.

He attends two such meetings every morning, each lasting five minutes.

The first is with all of the department heads, then he moves to another meeting with the administration team.

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“Our communication has improved a lot within the business,” he says on the impact of these meetings.

“It has very much helped looking at problems that are there on a daily basis that have to be dealt with very quickly.”

He says Nelson Forests is looking at moving the concept to their suppliers.

But before it can ask its suppliers to do this, he says, they should make sure the company is getting its systems structured around the Lean system.

“In many ways, we can model ourselves on Toyota,” he states.

“They are known to be a demanding customer of their suppliers, he states. But their suppliers know they will be paid well, and on time.

“Even if they have very high standards, everybody wants to work for them.” Photos of the 'Lean tour' in Japan are by Juan Van Staden

Related: Data science in the forest Nigel Brabyn drills in on a key asset of Nelson Forests – its data repository, which is set to grow exponentially as digital tools are used in logging production.

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Tags business intelligenceLeanToyotaNigel Brabyn

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