Written by Matthew Robinson

Written by Matthew Robinson

What is BBC Spark?

Created in 2012, BBC Spark is an in-house team that brings resources, skills, ideas and methodologies to help other parts of the BBC think differently about the way they work and change for the better. Spark’s mission is to make the BBC the most efficient and effective public service broadcaster in the world, maximising value for audiences and creating capacity to meet new challenges.

Some of the difficulties Spark faced in the first two or three years will be familiar to change managers everywhere. Changes often wouldn’t stick beyond the time-frame of a project, ownership of change was difficult to handover to the business and gradually old behaviours crept back in. Sometimes champions from the team would use the knowledge gained with Spark to move roles, taking the experience with them (although hopefully to a new area of the BBC!)

Lean for Leaders

Spark set about addressing these common challenges by instigating the Lean for Leaders programme in April 2015. The main objective was to achieve value for money by equipping a small but critical body of staff with the tools to deliver change and become lean champions within the BBC.

The pilot ran from June-August 2015 and involved two groups of willing volunteers from around the BBC, with one group from BBC Archives, and another made up of staff members from Radio Multiplatform, BBC Monitoring, TV Licensing as well as others. The only criterion for attending was that people should have a ‘burning platform’ for change: a problem statement to address as well as support from management to divert resources to their project.

In order to assess the success or otherwise of the pilot, we monitored various metrics including quality and relevance of the training, % of delegates who attended coaching sessions and the overall impact of the programme, assessed 12 weeks later.

At the end of August the pilot was deemed a success, with feedback scores averaging around the 90% mark, 80% of delegates attending at least one coaching session, and nearly half attending three or more.

Another interesting trend was apparent from the pilot metrics. As one group was made up of staff from one department (BBC Archives) and the other mixed, we were able to compare the difference between these two approaches. Feedback scores on the training were significantly higher in the Archives group, in the mid to high nineties, while the mixed group were in the mid-eighties. Conversion to coaching was also a lot better with the Archives group, with 64% receiving three or more coaching sessions compared to 33% in the mixed group. One of the most telling results was the ‘Overall Impact’ scores from both groups; Archives assessed the impact of the programme as 89% positive, compared to 62% from the mixed group.

These results indicated that the ideal conditions for a positive outcome would be to engage with sponsors who are overseeing a change programme in a specific area, as this was the case in Archives. This would make the job of recruiting attendees much easier as it would only require a single point of contact, and would also provide an ‘escalation point’ if issues arose or people were struggling to fit their improvement work into their daily routines.

With this in mind, Lean for Leaders became a part of business-as-usual with waves commissioned by BBC Monitoring, BBC Scotland Production and Enterprise IT. Mixed-group courses were also run so that keen individuals would not miss out; however the strategic focus was on supporting key stakeholders with their change programmes.

Lean for Leaders culminated in a ‘Celebrate Success’ event just before Christmas, exactly six months after the first training day, where our senior sponsors had the chance to meet the team and review the work that had been done by Lean for Leaders delegates. This was a great opportunity to reflect as a team on what had been achieved in a relatively short space of time.

Tailoring the Message

One of the key factors in building a successful programme was tailoring the message for a unique BBC culture. Without a commercial imperative, the lifeblood of the BBC is its creativity. Much of Spark’s improvement work focuses on allowing more time for, or finding ways to enhance, creativity. Anyone who has worked at the corporation will tell you that business terms like ‘continuous improvement’ and ‘cost-efficiency’ are a big turn-off; our challenge was to present a lean methodology in a way that would land positively.

Project Images

One way of tapping in to the creativity of Lean for Leaders delegates was to invite them each to submit an image that would sum up their project. These images were displayed anonymously around the room, and throughout the three days of training everyone would have the chance to speak for five minutes (or fifteen in some cases…) on their image and what it represents. As well as allowing delegates to exercise their inherent creativity, this stimulated some lively discussions about the projects being worked on. It also had the positive effect of encouraging people to think about their project in a different way. They would often complain of being lost in the detail, unable to see the wood for the trees – giving them a chance to think creatively about how they would sum things up visually helped to provide them with a new perspective.

Relevant Examples

It was vital to the engagement of the BBC delegates that the trainers and coaches were able to relate traditional lean (often manufacturing-focused) concepts using relevant BBC examples. Fortunately, with two or three years’ worth of Spark projects under our belts, we had an ample supply; examples include the use of visual management to improve presenters’ punctuality and implementing Standard Operating Procedures in Blue Peter (renamed of course!). By tapping into these, as well as drawing on the experience of the trainers from other organisations and industries, the course was highly relatable for the audience.

BBC Content

The use of BBC content to demonstrate a key point or land a particular message was another device used on the course. As well as providing light relief from the intensive learning process, the videos were a helpful reminder of the BBC’s raison d’etre – programming. Examples include a classic Fawlty Towers clip to introduce the ‘Understanding the Customer’ module, as well as a clip from Building Cars Live, in which James May visits a Toyota factory and explains the principle of kaizen.

Pragma, not Dogma

There were certain instances in which it was necessary to deviate somewhat from the Lean liturgy in order to craft the message for BBC delegates. We self-imposed an unwritten rule that the essence of the theory must not be compromised, but in some cases it was deemed suitable to tweak the detail.

For example, when it came to the Eight Wastes, Spark’s prior project experience indicated that Motion and Transport could be merged into Movement, in the main referring to the movement of journalists which would be most relevant for the BBC. Motion as it refers to wasted effort on a production line and the Transport of goods in particular were deemed less useful in a broadcasting environment. Another waste, Duplication, was introduced; such was the prevalence of this particular problem, for example several journalists attending the same press conference.

Re-writing the theory books may feel like a travesty to some hardened practitioners of Lean; for Spark the most important thing was to get the message across in a relevant way that would be directly applicable to BBC processes, and ultimately lead to positive change for the better.

Filling in the Blanks

Spark for Sponsors

One complaint we would often hear during the training sessions went along the lines of: “this is all very well, but my boss will never go for it!” In order to address this common barrier to change, we developed ‘Spark for Sponsors’, a one-day training course aimed specifically at senior sponsors of improvement work. The course includes an introduction to Lean followed by a section on the role of management within a Lean organisation, as well as some useful tools that could be put to immediate practical use.

Lean Awareness

Another training requirement that became apparent was for members of staff who may be affected by a lean transformation but wouldn’t be deploying the tools themselves – where an awareness of the approach was necessary to help projects run smoothly further down the line. This gave rise to a half-day Lean Awareness course which was then crafted into a series of animated videos, owing to some cheap online software and the industry and creativity (of course) of the Spark team!


A fundamental challenge for the Lean for Leaders team is incentivising people who come on the training to see their project through to fruition. As Spark is an accredited certifier of Lean competency, the next stage will be to start offering the ‘carrot’ of a 1B LERC qualification to ensure the work is seen through to the bitter (or hopefully sweet) end.

The Way Forward

Lean for Leaders now has in place all the elements of a strong programme, with the potential to deliver benefits for the BBC by mobilising talented staff throughout the organisation to implement change. It has also dove-tailed nicely with traditional Spark projects, as managers have been sending local team members onto the three-day training course before the project kicks off.

With a clear strategic focus from management, ensuring that projects undertaken are aligned with the objectives of the company and that individuals are motivated to deliver, not only will improvements continue to happen, but the seeds of culture change will be sown.