Lean broadcasting: Lean in the BBC

A service you probably consume every single day is broadcasting. Can lean principles help the broadcasting industry produce better value for the audience – and do so more efficiently and more effectively than today? Admittedly, I had never thought about broadcasting as a new application area for lean, but clearly it is coming. This post looks at lean broadcasting, where the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is a first mover.

Lean broadcasting_BBC Spark_

The 6th Annual Lean Management Journal Conference in Amsterdam has just ended. For me, one of the most interesting presentations was given by Adrian Ruth from the BBC. Picture this: You work in the broadcasting industry back in 2010, and the government announces a freezing of the broadcasting license fee. They also redistribute some of the income of the fees. In real effects for the BBC, it means 26 % less money available for delivering its existing services. The BBC is expected to continue delivering the same high-quality content that its audience requires, but with a quarter less funding. Furthermore, broadcasting had rarely changed over the last 90 years. How can the BBC create more value with less funding?

Create a lean spark

“Lean” is not a term known in broadcasting, and everything related to effective factory operations is usually frowned upon in creative environments. Nevertheless, a small team in the BBC decided to give “lean thinking” a try in a pilot area of the big media organization. The BBC established a lean program and a lean team called “BBC Spark”. BBC Spark is an in-house team “helping the BBC change for the better”. “Instead of forcing a full corporate lean program, we wanted to create a spark in many pockets of the BBC organization”, explains Adrian.

The Spark team helps and supports improvement projects in the BBC. A Spark project is intended as the easy start of something much bigger; a change of attitude and way of working in the BBC. The long-term vision is clear: “To make the BBC the most efficient and effective public service broadcaster in the world, maximizing value for audiences and creating capacity to meet new challenges.”

Start simple

The BBC has started with a range of small pilots including one in BBC News in the south west region of England, and is now in the process of rolling it out to the other English regions.The  BBC realizes that changing a culture takes a long time. After the initial help of McKinsey in 2012-2013 establishing BBC Spark, another consultancy (EY) helped built capability in the Spark organization for a couple of years. Since 2015, Spark has been a self-driven program; run by the BBC for the BBC.

The first pilot was done in one radio show at BBC Radio 1. The approach was simple, but unusual: “taking a fresh look at our radio show — outside the radio”. The implemented improvements were just sound lean thinking and well-known lean practices. These were echoed in another project in CBBC (the children’s channel). The team there rethought its routines for communication, used visual management to track performance, made more effective pre-briefs and debriefs using team boards, and redesigned the logistics and support processes. The result was less rehearsal time and more time to create content. Exactly this focus on using lean thinking to free up more time for the staff to do creative things is a key for deploying lean in broadcasting. It created the necessary passion and can-do attitude in the pilots in the BBC.

Tell the story

Whilst the Spark projects certainly do not succeed every time, the BBC is doing many things right in their approach to lean. The BBC tailors the lean program for its organization’s characteristics, culture, skills, and needs (see post about XPS). If your organization is low on change capacity and unfamiliar with (or even opposing) lean thinking, you surely need another approach to lean than if you are a mature automobile corporation. The BBC understood that. Instead of forcing lean from the top, they used Spark to plant seeds of lean practices while learning how lean applies to broadcasting.

The word “lean” is strategically avoided. It is only used to attract knowledgeable people to the Spark team, which consists of a mix of lean experts with experience from other industries and people with broadcasting background. The BBC also makes Spark a unique lean journey by building on the strengths of its organization: they do what they are best at: “telling the story”. The BBC spreads the good examples of realized change for better through videos and interviews internally. The message is clear:

"Our audience is getting better services from the BBC as a result of our lean initiatives." (Adrian Ruth, BBC Spark, LMJAC 8.7.15)

There were a range of other inspiring presentations and case studies during the LMJ Conference too. We heard about lean in law firms, lean in engineer-to-order firms, lean in Shell, lean in Nike and lean in Visa, among others. I’ll get back to some of those lean applications in the future. Please let me know what you think of lean broadcasting.

2 thoughts on “Lean broadcasting: Lean in the BBC

  1. Pingback: Lean in BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) - Simply Lean

  2. Not having any knowledge of “lean”, I noted the same person reading the News, the weather, and commentating for their own local show ! Now we are seeing the actual results of lean in in the NHS, the prison services, manufacturing or what’s left of it the railways, local health services, council services. And never a word spoken actually in the press, radio, TV, but once you are aware…… I could see the effects, for example, in the guidance given out to managers and trusts in the NHS from NHS England, this for the preparation of the Strategic Transformation Plans now to be introduced, this guidance entitled Transforming urgent and emergency care services in England Safer,faster,better: good practice in delivering urgent and emergency care
    This document, as a retired nurse, spells out – without actually using the word lean – what the future holds for healthcare and no doubt eventually global healthcare !

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