This issue of the Lean Management Journal should prove to be another interesting edition as it explores how lean is adopted and adapted to suit the needs of small and medium sized enterprises.

There is a general perception that, given their size, SMEs are altogether more “inherently lean”. My previous boss, Simon Elias, used to say that you can tell how effective an organisation is by asking the question “How many people does it take to change a light bulb?”

In larger, more bureaucratic organisations, this simple task can involve many, as you seek to raise the problem, request a purchase order to pay for the problem, despatch a team to solve the problem, and then pay for the work that (you hope) will one day be completed. The whole process may take weeks and involve much nagging. The smaller the organisation, the more likely you are to spot that the light bulb needs replacing and have someone, who cares enough and is empowered enough, who just goes ahead and changes it. In the case of the Lean Enterprise Research Centre, this person was always Simon.

If we follow that logic through, the smaller the enterprise the easier it is for all employees to share the same purpose and vision for the company. It should be easier for the senior team to be closer to “where the work happens”, to know the employees that work for them personally and to be closer to their customers to better understand what they value and need. When teams share a common purpose and desire to achieve, people are more likely to help each other out, job rotation increases and everyone has a better understanding of the organisation’s end to end value stream. All of these scenarios, we know, are desirable elements of a lean enterprise.

Does that mean that SMEs cannot benefit from the application of a lean approach? Of course not! SMEs are often so “lean” (lean in the worst sense of the word i.e. resource poor) that everyone who works within them is completely overloaded! Corners are cut, mistakes are made and everyone is so busy there is no time to understand what’s happening, conduct root cause analysis, improve and then analyse and embed that improvement. There never seems to be the time and space available in order to reflect and plan for the future.

This issue will explore how SMEs can and have benefited from the standards and structure that a lean approach provides. It will explore the challenges that SMEs face when adopting lean practices and will share how a number of different organisations have creatively met these challenges. Most importantly, it will remind us that no matter what size an organisation is, great things can always be gleaned by giving employees the time, space and opportunity to stop, reflect and improve their working practices – that when working, it’s not only your job to do a job, but to get better at doing that job.