A partnership brings Lean opportunities to Singapore

Published on
August 3, 2017
René Aernoudts
René Aernoudts
René Aernoudts is director/owner of LMI
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In 2013-2014, as part of our efforts to have a growing impact in the world, the Lean Global Network looked at Southeast Asia with great interest. Singapore immediately proved to be a very attractive base from which to spread our Lean influence in the region: the city is strategically located, business-friendly and cosmopolitan.

As we searched for opportunities to have a presence in the city-state, we discovered that the Singapore government was struggling with a significant social and economic challenge that could hinder future growth: a labor shortage due to a low birth rate and an aging population.

Introducing Lean Enterprise Development program

To mitigate the negative effects of this workforce problem, the Ministry of Labor introduced the Lean Enterprise Development (LED) program in October 2015, which hopes to boost the competitiveness of Singapore's small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) - which are largely owned and run by locals rather than expats.

Over the years, there have been many government-sponsored initiatives to increase the innovation capacity and productivity of Singapore companies (some dating back to the 1970s), but these have not produced sustainable results. We learned that the government strategy was performance-oriented, with a stronger focus on KPIs than on developing capabilities on the front lines (the only way to ensure sustainable results). Moreover, these efforts were primarily focused on industry and engineering.

Lean thinking

The LED scheme clearly represented a shift in the government's approach: it now wanted to develop capabilities in SMEs, with a particular focus on the service sector. This obviously sounded like a great opportunity for us at the Lean Global Network, not only to impact an entire country, but also to offer SMEs an alternative way of working. Our approach to spreading Lean thinking and acting has always been about developing capabilities.

The collaboration with Singaporte Institute of Technology

During our search for a local partner (we knew from the beginning that the best way to find a local organization that could help us with the complexities of a new adventure in a new location), the government introduced us to the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT).

SIT is a newly established university that aims to teach practical skills (in addition to theory) to train graduates ready for the job market. Their Learning Enterprise Model, which focuses on educating companies to collaboratively create solutions to their daily business challenges, matches our own approach to spreading Lean . Indeed, our mission immediately seemed very much in line with SIT's - not only empowering people to transform their organizations by teaching them practical skills, but also encouraging lean practitioners to come together and share their experiences (for example, through the annual Lean summit that SIT organizes).

That's why the Lean Global Network and the Singapore Institute of Technology formed a three-year partnership about a year ago to develop faculty and support SMEs by developing Lean leaders. We shared insights, and now we are happy to share a mission with SIT: to make a difference for Singapore.

A partnership brings lean opportunities to singapore
The signing of the partnership in Singapore

A new model for academia?

The first result of this new tripartite relationship - between LGN, SIT and Singaporean companies - was the creation of the Lean Transformation Innovation Center (LTIC). Its purpose is:

  • Help the SMEs participating in the program achieve sustainable business results
  • develop employee capabilities to enable continuous improvement
  • and develop the capabilities of SIT faculty to develop Singapore's future workforce

Academia is often criticized for focusing too much on theory and largely neglecting practice. When our experiment with SIT began, it quickly became clear to us that we had on our hands a potentially different model for universities to collaborate with industry and disseminate knowledge.

Together with SIT, the LGN has set up a host of activities to benefit Singapore and its economy, from workshops to summits. We even have plans for a Learning Lab for school students! The core of our work, however, is the joint development of the Lean Skills Development Program (which is largely based on the LGN's Lean Practitioner Program).

The five-month program is designed to provide participants with a theoretical understanding of Lean thinking, followed by practical application of this knowledge at companies to address a real business need. Our goal is to demonstrate meaningful improvement in company performance and develop key people within the companies so that the results are sustainable. In the first year of this partnership, we have worked with a dozen companies in Singapore - including Mount Alvernia Hospital, the NTUC adult training center, noodle manufacturer TSK, auto workshop Motor Edgevantage and polystyrin resin producer TPSC.

But there is more: when we visit a company, faculty members from SIT go with us so that they too can learn Lean in a hands-on way and then teach it to their students at the university.

But that's not to say that the Lean Global Network isn't also learning. The Lean Skills Development Program is provided by coaches from four of our institutes - the Lean Enterprise Institute in the US, the Lean Enterprise Australia, the Lean Management Institute in the Netherlands and the Instituto Lean Management in Spain - and this is a great learning opportunity for us.

Sharing our experience as individual institutions and comparing our approaches to co-create something for and with organizations is extremely helpful. Being able to do this with a like-minded partner, with whom we have built a remarkable relationship, makes it all even more fun and impactful.

We see SIT as a unique university - one we are proud to join forces with - and encourage academic institutions around the world to learn from their approach to knowledge development and sharing. Incorporating on-the-job training and practical skills development into curricula fills a gap currently present in the offerings of most universities, and creates better outcomes for students and society.

That's what we hope to achieve in Singapore. We'll let you know how our experiment turns out.

A message from John Shook- president of the Lean Global Network

John Shook

During our series of reconnaissance visits to Singapore to meet with potential partners, we were not sure what type of organization we would want to work with. We were determined to find only an organization that was willing to try some experiments that could meet both our and their learning needs. That could have been a company, a government agency or a university. In the end, the Singapore Institute of Technology proved not only willing, but also like-minded; there is no doubt that our shared goals and aspirations led to a "marriage" that, we hope, will have a positive impact on Singapore companies. Like everything we do at the LGN, this is an experiment - a multi-faceted experiment. It's about how we as a network can support an entire country (and from there, influence a region); about how we can help SMEs, which represent the majority of businesses in the global economy; and, perhaps most importantly, about how we can collaborate effectively with universities. We especially like the fact that as a university, SIT has a strong focus on developing practical skills. This is completely in line with what we stand for. Our roots are firmly in traditions that emphasize the value of experiential learning - learning by doing. As Lean Community, we have learned over time that the impact of what we do can only be measured by what happens after we are gone - and that sustainability is impossible without developing Lean thinking skills in organizations. So, knowing that we can't fully support Lean transformations from a distance and that our time at the companies participating in the program is limited, we have tried from the beginning to structure the training program to ensure sustainability as much as possible. And that means developing Lean skills in companies and in the university at the same time. I think that's the most important part of our experiment with SIT: working with an academic institution to provide companies with hands-on Lean knowledge and skills that they can take into the future.

The authors

Arthur Poh Heo Tat - director of Technology, Innovation & Enterprise - Singapore Institute of Technology
René Aernoudts - President Lean Management Institute Netherland
René Aernoudts is the President of the Lean Management Instituut in the Netherlands
Jikku Mohan - Product and Services Strategy Manager -Lean Enterprise Institute Cambridge, MA

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