Claire O’Brien, Marketing Executive at Ireland-based e-book distribution service ePubDirect, introduces this feature on the application of lean thinking in the publishing industry. Graeme Blackler, Global Continuous Improvement Manager at publishing company Elsevier, picks up the story outlining his experience with adopting the methodology across production operations in three continents.

The book publishing landscape has changed dramatically in the past six years. Traditional publishing has evolved to become a digital phenomenon, with e-book sales growing at an average annual rate of 184.5% – according to BookStats – between 2009 and 2012.

As the pace of change increases, publishers face increasing pressure to publish faster and cheaper. In addition to commissioning, editing, production, promotion and sales, publishers are also expected to develop “direct to consumer” relationships, manage social media channels and handle complex rights management and licencing issues.

Continuous improvement can enable publishers to achieve a balance of flexible, best-cost publishing, without compromising quality. In the production processes of print and electronic books, lean can enable publishing companies of all sizes to achieve efficiency and cost containment as well as greater flexibility, agility and scalability.

Lean thinking represents a proven methodology that enables them to deliver  in a sustainable and profitable manner, while simultaneously allowing the organisation to be responsive to customer needs. Taking a lean approach can result in reducing costs, freeing up employee time and lessening stress.


by Graeme Blackler

I work for a large publishing organisation, who until a few years ago never really invested in process improvement.  Why bother? Profits and revenue were consistently high and growing year on year. In fact, the only reason we started looking at any type of process improvement in the first place was to handle IT projects that would merge key business systems left over from acquisitions. This initially opened the door for a few of us to develop our own initiatives and start reviewing (and improving) our own department processes in isolation from the rest of the business.

It wasn’t until the onslaught of the global recession in 2008 that the need for a more consolidated approach came to light and it was decided that there was an urgent need for efficiency, cost reduction and multi-channel publishing.

In the end, we decided to implement lean six sigma across our group’s operations.


It wasn’t quite that simple, I must admit. Don’t get me wrong, I implemented an improvement methodology a few years ago into our Customer Service Department, which was well received.  Most teams knew their critical processes, so it was a case of following a proven methodology to improve them:

  1. Chart the process (an “as is” process map), capture bottlenecks impeding efficient work practices;
  2. Challenge the “as is” process – group all key players in a room and agree upon a future state (“to be”) process, ironing out the identified bottlenecks;
  3. Change the process through an agreed action plan and then control the new process to make sure people do not revert to the old ways.

So when it came to introducing lean six sigma, why was there such resistance? After all, it’s only a variation of a familiar theme.

To start with, there were only pockets of continuous improvement activity, with differing approaches in place. With most processes crossing departments, there was a need to move to one single methodology. Lean six sigma was chosen for its robustness and data-driven approach, which gives the ability to analyse and prove root causes and effects, while enabling improvements to be controlled and verified.

It is a culture, a way of thinking, behaving and performing disciplined activities to identify issues, determine root causes and fix problems in a systematic way. But if you are in an organisation that is not data-rich or KPI-driven at team level (such as some non-manufacturing environments), then this can be perceived as both challenging and intrusive to the status quo.  For lean to work, you need to embed the new way of thinking across all levels of the organisation.


We started our journey by focusing on tools rather than embedding the basic concepts of lean management at the ground floor level.  We trained lots of green belts, put people through problem-solving training and introduced tools such as Pareto charts and A3 project reports. But for many of our teams, who may have been in publishing for years and had had little need to change key business processes in that time, this became more of a barrier. They said they didn’t have time for it. They did to please the bosses, but were clear in saying they wouldn’t “live and breathe it”. They thought it would go away just like any other management initiative had in the past.

To most people on the frontline, there was little context to what we were trying to achieve – it felt as if we were trying to tick boxes to make it look like we were a lean organisation. We didn’t have a process to identify the most important issues, or even understand if the issue would make a good project in the first place. As a result, a large number of training projects were either halted or took too long to complete. The impact of this led to teams feeling demoralised.


Having taken a step back, I’m now trying to insert the basics at ground level (and incidentally, the way I would do it if starting over again) to develop better understanding of concepts, give more context and develop basic all-round skills within teams. The aim is that by installing the following layers, the culture will change from the ground up and the teams will eventually want to drive improvement themselves.

1.  Start with embedding the basics of lean into the teams to gain involvement and understanding.

Have the teams meet regularly to identify things that stop them doing their job effectively.  Get the teams to create categories and capture the frequency of these issues.

  • Think about introducing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) so that the team can understand what and how they should be doing things;
  • Introduce the need for visual management at team level, which helps make the team accountable for their processes by displaying relevant KPIs and showing team performance against them;
  • You can build upon the basics as more information becomes available, such as process maps, value stream maps and issues yet to be tackled.

2. Introduce problem-solving techniques, such as 5 Whys and variations of 8D problem solving.

  • Develop these techniques by tackling the biggest issues identified through visual management. Make them relevant to the team;
  • Let the teams take control of their own issues, making them accountable for the problem, but also empowering them to fix them;
  • Teach the importance of data and how it can be used to identify root causes and reveal improvements.

3. Train green belts by selecting team members who have shown both interest and aptitude during the team meetings.  Train them using relevant issues identified through the visual management process, but make sure time is freed up for them to work on projects.

4. Implement department/group visual boards (QCDSM/balanced score card), which is the representation of the VM progress of each team, designed to show the groups’ performance KPIs. Display the biggest issues impacting group performance and actions to improve, displaying information about on-going projects.

5. Link company strategies to all aspects of improvement through regular communication.  This helps develop knowledge of how the team and their work fit in to the broader strategic direction of the company.  It adds perspective and generally aids the understanding for change.

The goal is that teams are able to visually see what is stopping them from performing at optimum efficiency and that they start to see the benefits of the CI process. It will then become part of their role, rather than something that is an addition to their day job


  • Decide early on where you would like to be as a CI organisation in the near future.  Have a vision;
  • Determine the key building blocks you will need to get there (e.g. implementing KPIs; introducing visual management, implement support infrastructure) and plan ahead to implement them;
  • Engage the teams early on by getting them involved in practical key activities, such as understanding how performance impacts KPIs and getting the teams to work together to identify root causes of issues;
  • Make everything as visual as possible. KPIs, issues and actions. This helps with accountability and understanding;
  • Start simple and build upon each building block layer. The key is not to overwhelm everyone at first, but to get the teams to understand the basics and see some quick results early;
  • Don’t give up.  It takes time and discipline to change a culture.