Lean separates learners from tellers


How can lean bring conflict? There is no denying that in the early days of a serious lean initiative, unless you’re very lucky, there will be some gnashing of teeth, even some weeping as arguments for or against heat up and lines are drawn – until resolution and change.

It’s very hard, however, to predict who’s going to be pro-lean or against – it mostly has little to do with people’s espoused theories (everyone believes in continuous improvement) but a lot to do with how they react to the sensei’s challenges.


Lean thinking cleaves as a sword, separating, in any group, two different attitudes:

  • Learners, who believe that in order to change the situation, they first have to change themselves: by changing their own understanding, positions, choices, reflexes, they’ll lead others to change as well and transform the situation as a whole. It starts with them.
  • Tellers, who believe they’re in the right and the issue is changing every one else’s minds and behaviors: by getting others to change, the situation will right itself. It’s others you have to reform first.

These two distinct attitudes are revealed very early on in lean, and starkly so at the very first gemba walks when the sensei points out an abnormality and immediately, the people in charge either 1) recognize it or question why this is a problem or 2) explain it away and point to someone else’s fault. It happens. Right. Away.

Toyota’s vision is very explicit: “we will meet our challenging goals by engaging the talent and passion of people, who believe there is always a better way.”

How does that work out for people who don’t believe there is always a better way? For people who feel that the outcomes and process are good enough? That they’re already working as hard as they can possibly be asked to and that nobody understands how tough things are, and that they need support, not more challenge? Tricky…

Problems first is the foundational attitude of lean thinking. The reason, as Taiichi Ohno clearly explains in his very first book, is that lean thinking is about seeking clarity by spotting one’s own misconception and looking beyond them. Like Michelangelo clearing the stone to discover the statue within the block of marble, in lean we clear away our wrong ideas to see what is there – no belief is sacred, no conclusion is foregone.

This is also why consultants are comfortable with operational excellence (show others how to fix their processes) and find lean thinking awkward: how should I change myself, as a consultant, so that others change as well? Not an easy question when your job is specifically to manage the change of others.

On the other hand, asking yourself “where should I change my mind? how should I approach this differently? How could I behave differently?” is endless fun as even well-known banal situations are an occasion for exploration, discovery and deeper understanding.

Liberating for some, the attitude that you need to change yourself first can also trigger high anxiety. Accepting this first step is the key to satisfaction as work as one builds up self-confidence by checking one’s standards, confidence in the team by practicing kaizen together and facing problems, and greater trust between managers and workers by creating an atmosphere where unfavorable information can be spoken without strain and where proposing a new way of doing things will be greeted with open-mindedness and curiosity rather than ridiculed or dismissed out-of-hand. Which sounds pretty cool.

But it starts with the personal commitment to be a learner (change my mind and behavior first) rather than a teller (start by telling others what they should think and do).



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