There is a lot of value on using metaphors as different ways to look at KM, and recently I have gained a lot of value from using the metaphor of a Supply Chain. Can we use a Lean Supply Chain as a model for Lean KM?
Knowledge has a user - the knowledge worker who needs to make a decision or plan an action - and it has a source - usually someone else's experience. The KM supply chain consists of getting the knowledge from the source to the user in the most effective, efficient and timely manner.
In the industrial world, much work has been done on the concept of a Lean Supply Chain - one in which all waste has been removed. A Lean supply chain is one where components reach the manufacturer "just in time", with minimal additional processing, and in a form where they can be used immediately.
Can we eliminate the waste from our Knowledge supply chain, and end up with Lean Knowledge Management - where knowledge reaches the knowledge worker "just in time", with minimal additional processing, and in a form where it can be applied immediately?
Let's look at the 7 wastes, and see what we can do.
Waste #1. Over-production—producing more than and/or ahead of demand.
Over-production of Knowledge is very common in Knowledge Management. We see this particularly in push-based enterprise social media, where we can be bombarded with hundreds of messages, very few of which are relevant. This blog post describes overproduction taken to the extreme, with massive push of (often duplicated) content resulting in destruction of value, with people spending far more time creating content, than time was saved re-using it. It is no coincidence that Lean Supply Chain is pull-based, and Lean Knowledge Management should be pull-based as well.
Waste #2. Waiting.
Knowledge Management can be really helpful, but only if the knowledge arrives on time to impact the decision. A lean KM supply chain will focus on the "clock speed" of KM, to ensure questions receive answers as soon as possible, and new knowledge is identified and embedded into process within minimum time.
Waste # 3. Unnecessary transport of materials.
In our knowledge management world, this really refers to hand-off, and to whether the chain between knowledge supplier and knowledge user can be made as short as possible. Communities of practice, for example, where "ask the audience"-type questions can be asked, and answered directly by the knowledge holder, will minimise the number of handoffs. With a large community of practice, everyone is at One Degree of Separation.
Waste # 4. Non-value added processing—doing more work than is necessary.
We often see this in lesson-learning systems, where the work of sifting and sorting multiple lessons or multiple search-hits has to be done by the knowledge user. Far better is a system where the sifting and sorting is done once, at source, by the lessons management team or the relevant subject matter expert. Then instead of each reader doing the work of synthesis, the knowledge arrives already synthesised.
Waste # 5. Unnecessary motion.
In KM terms, this could be unnecessary online motion - the need to visit multiple databases, multiple knowledge bases, a separate CoP system, another place for Yammer feed etc. The best and most efficient KM systems have everything in a single portal - the community forum, the knowledge base etc etc.
Waste # 6. Excess inventory— frequently resulting from overproduction.
Lessons systems jammed with lessons, hundreds of hits from the search engine, knowledge bases crammed with near-duplicate content, or obsolete content, or contradictory content - all of these represent the waste associated with excess inventory. Part of the role of the process owner in KM is to ensure that the knowledge inventory is well managed and free from dross. This does not mean eliminating knowledge which might be useful some day; it means eliminating duplicates, wrong knowledge, and otherwise removing noise from the system and leaving the signal behind.
Waste # 7. Defects, or the cost of wrong knowledge.
Wrong knowledge is worse than no knowledge. Any KM system needs to have a quality assurance step, whether this is Community QA of a wiki, or editorial QA of a knowledge base.
The lean supply chain analogy allows us a new way to look at KM, and the 7 wastes give us a filter for improving the way we work. If we could make our KM supply chains truly lean, we could considerably improve the way our organisations operate.