Digital Lean

Going Digital with Andrew Hurford

Digital Lean is focused on harnessing emerging technologies to solve process-based problems and drive efficiency. As we look to the future, it’s become clear that Digital and Lean will soon become inextricable.

Andrew Hurford, a Business Transformation Consultant, allowed us to interview him about harnessing the power of data and technology to support Lean activities. Andrew specialises in providing change management and Lean consulting services to asset-intensive industries, primarily utilities and local government, with a focus on digital lean transformations. Andrew is based in Brisbane, Australia but holds a unique international perspective, having also worked extensively in the UK and the Middle East.


What’s your professional background and your experience with Digital Lean?

I’ve been working in continuous improvement for about 30 years now. I spent the first 10 years in the UK as a quality engineer working on production lines and dealing with quality issues in the field. Having that background and experience has been key to my understanding of Lean and continuous improvement.

Almost 20 years ago I moved to the Middle East to work for a large logistics and beverage consulting firm. In the latter part of my time in Dubai, I moved into consulting, with a focus on technology-enabled transformation and major ERP programs. In 2010, I returned to Australia, and since then I’ve worked in consulting environments within the transport sector predominantly around technology and enabling digital transformation. For the last two years, I ran a Lean transformation program for local government and worked in a power transmission business in New South Wales, looking at the establishment of an asset management transformation program.


What are your key learnings from a change management perspective?

The program I ran for the last two years was my first foray into local government, and one of the first things that really struck me was the lack of joined-up thinking. You have seven or eight services these organisations provide, but they operate as different entities, and they do things differently. I found there were pockets of excellence within all of these departments and they’ll run individual programs really, really well but unfortunately, there is a significant lack of leadership engagement.

The concept of bringing change in early and building change into the program of work can also be a challenge within local government organisations, but if you work closely with the teams to discuss the potential challenges, you can find ways to minimise any push-back and integrate that into the program.

A recent example I experienced with a local government was discussing how they would run a transformation program to alleviate resistance from departments or individuals. They had already set up a new Transformation Innovation Department, totally separate from the rest of the organisation, and they’re transferring all their current strategic projects into this department to align with the business strategy. It was really interesting to be in a local government department that is reorganising themselves to do things in a cohesive way, and also ensuring there’s collaboration across the whole of the business.


How has your belief system from a business and a social perspective been challenged as a result of COVID-19?

I got involved with a big water utility in Queensland in early January 2020 and we had three months of intensive stakeholder engagement and then COVID-19 struck. I was called into the office on a Thursday night and told we were going to be running the program from home. The offices were cleared out within 24 hours with no real preparation or concept about how to work remotely.

We started running Lean workshops using Microsoft Teams and tried finding different ways to run a Lean workshop with brown paper so everyone could see it. While it was awkward running a face-to-face workshop online and working out digital alternatives to butcher paper and post-it notes, COVID-19 positively brought about behavioural changes in people – almost immediately.

Throughout the beginning of the project, prior to COVID-19, people were not engaging during the intensive engagements. They didn’t have time to turn up to meetings and were not communicating effectively. However, when they started working from home, teams were really engaging and came on board easily. They started to go from one meeting straight to another and suddenly everyone was very productive.

I found the management of change significantly easier. When I started to think about why, my thoughts led me to think that maybe it’s a cultural thing, that people are a bit reluctant to put up their hands during in-person engagements, but in a virtual world, they can challenge things more easily because they are not physically present. They can type into the chat field to voice their thoughts and opinions, and because no one is directly watching them, it’s leveled the playing field so that everyone gets the chance to be heard. We’re finding new ways to do things, and it’s allowing people to become really engaged.

The other thing that’s pivoted over the past 12 months, local governments have brought forward the use of digital technology by ten years. I was talking to one of the senior managers at a local government recently, and she said there’s no way they would be working from home if this crisis hadn’t occurred, it would have taken them 10 years to get to where they are at this moment.

The whole concept of digital transformation is, how much quicker can you bring this forward.

When discussing Digital Lean, you explore using different technologies to make processes more efficient – whether that’s robotics, data management systems, or a more effective way of taking information out to the field. From a mobility perspective, these solutions typically take eons to get through the IT department and leadership for approval. What we’re starting to see is the transition to making decisions a lot quicker.

As an example, while running workshops at a local government over recent weeks, they said they would like to look at replacing their SAP Work Manager system – the usual throwaway comment you hear from a client embracing Lean. However, I got a call a few days later, and all of a sudden they pulled the funds together to run a Lean workshop to look at the requirements for a replacement.

COVID-19 has been a catalyst for driving efficiency into the working environment, by using digital technologies to improve the flow of information in the value chain, simplifying processes and enabling greater communication. What I and others had previously not thought was possible, is now being embraced across the organisation and implemented at a speed historically unheard of within local governments.


Prior to COVID-19 there was a major movement to incorporate a digital Lean mindset into business transformations to improve operational performance. How have you engaged with this in the past?

Two years ago I was working in the power industry for the biggest transmission company in Australia. They had four million poles, a million kilometres of cable, and managed all the transmission of power around New South Wales. If we put that into a UK perspective, that’s half of Europe. They were looking at ways of using new technology to drive efficiency into the workforce. Four million poles, every single one of those poles needs to be inspected. They send a team out and they climb the pole to inspect it. That takes time and it’s immensely expensive. So they said, why don’t we use drones? They can look at the poll from a different perspective, gather lots of data and we don’t need 15 guys going out to the field. One drone can do an awful lot of poles in one day. Now, it does take the human element out of it but we’re starting to see a transition from that. We take all that digital data and apply it in the system, then we can align it to understand what management decisions we need to make. So that joined-up thinking is getting there, the challenge is to think about it more holistically.


Where are Australian local government organisations in relation to its Lean maturity, and also in terms of digitalisation?

Let’s talk about Lean and then let’s talk about digital maturity. From a Lean perspective, a lot of private sectors and local government organisations are already using Lean. Brisbane City Council has a major Lean program, Gold Coast City Council has used Lean and Lean methodologies, but they’re only really using it as tools.

When I was at Redland City Council, we ran a Lean transformation program from a cultural change perspective. The Council wanted to change the mindset of its staff and give people the power and the opportunities to be creative, but also train them in the concepts of Lean so they could use their new skills on bigger programs moving forward.

So, we can say that within local government, Lean is definitely on the radar, but at different stages of implementation and for a range of purposes.

Now let’s think about the difference between business transformation and digitally-enabled transformation. All digital or ERP upgrades, or digital projects are to enable a process to work more effectively, but it’s not all about the process. It is, however, all about people. It’s about getting the right data to the right people and ensuring that the technology delivers the transformation requirements.

I have covered off some examples of how Lean is being used in a small sample of councils, and I have also touched on the difference between business transformation and digitally-enabled transformation. But what does this mean in terms of Lean maturity?

Historically, ERP projects have been run in silos, with limited or no communication between all the departments who are directly affected by the change in systems and/or processes. This means the project fails to deliver the benefits back to the organisation – no one wins in isolation.

There are some key questions that need to be asked before embarking on a transformation project, but not knowing what these questions indicate a lack of Lean maturity. More needs to be done in order to create awareness of Lean across all local government councils, as this will directly increase its maturity and understanding of continuous improvement opportunities.

I am definitely seeing some great Lean projects being implemented, but in order for them to be successful, there needs to be greater communication and collaboration between departments – the silos need to be broken down and it needs to come from the top.


What final words of wisdom do you have for Australian local government organisations who are looking to the future?

We need to see Lean consultants working hand-in-hand with each organisation so they can learn from each other. Sadly, there are some consultancy firms who don’t work with the organisation to define what they really need. How can they deliver on a solution when they don’t ask key questions to determine the required outcome?

My advice to anyone who is thinking about using digital technology for transformation is to go back to the basics and ask some key questions:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • What process is it affecting?
  • What do the stakeholders want to achieve?

Each local council possesses a lot of data but they don’t know always know what to do with it. So when someone wants to implement a digital solution, they forget the data is the key – it’s this data that provides the information to drive efficiency into the organisation, reduce waste and improve customer service problems.

Look to the data, ask questions, break down silos and find a consultant who will work with you to achieve greater efficiencies across the organisation.

To find out more please join our upcoming webinar:

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