The enduring magic of lean thinking


I continue to be amazed by the fact that executives who are genuinely interested in figuring out “lean” have spectacular results with it, while those who want to use lean to fix performance problems in their processes fail within two to three years (depending on how good they are at internal politics).

I guess its not much of a stretch to think that people curious about their subject matter actually learn, whereas those purely interested in transactional progress don’t. The learning process moves through four phases:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: you don’t know what you don’t know.
  2.  Conscious incompetence: you’ve figured out that you don’t know something and start learning it.
  3.  Unconscious competence: in the process of learning, you gather some competence although you’re hard put to both see it and know why.
  4. Conscious competence: as you master the topic you also grasp better the reasons for the competence, thus further deepening your understanding (and allowing you to teach others).

Managers who see the lean tools as ways to eliminate waste in their processes simply never get over stage one. Managers who see waste elimination as an exercise to discover the full lean system progress step-by-step, familiarize themselves with the various principles and progressively gain competence, which shows in sustainable results.

But I suspect that there is a second, hidden factor. Transactional managers trigger a “low road” in their colleagues: “I want/need this result, and this is the way to get it.” This goes straight to all the fear/fight/flee responses in the mammalian brain and results in resistance to change, defensiveness or various forms of passive aggressive responses – such as pretending ritually to do the stand-ups and the kaizens without ever truly engaging with the exercises.

On the other hand, leaders who explore the lean system out of curiosity and passion for helping their customers with their issues and for their business’ success switch on a “high road” path which involves imagining a vision, solving problems and looking for different solutions together. In doing so they engage and involve others and build lasting solutions from every one’s willingness and participation – which leads to completely different outcomes.

If you turn this around and look at it as a lean practitioner, you can see that the demand for lean from executives is too often transactional. Many managers seek to protect the status quo of their strategies and processes by acquiring lean tools to “fix problems.” Then, of course there is also what you, as a practitioner, intend to do with lean: your pet tools, your favorite goals, your own aspirations and obsessions.

At the center of all this is the enduring mystery of what lean really is and how this system developed organically from its roots in Toyota to become a full alternative to traditional business management. Because it’s a system, it’s impossible to keep it all in mind at all times, and so we are condemned never to know lean but always to learn lean.

Yes, we all suspect that, like the Wizard of Oz, lean is a clever piece a clockwork – which explains why it works so well in all situations. And it is. But the mechanism is human, not organizational, which is why the mystery is enduring. And why getting consistent, sustainable results requires having fun with the endless mystery rather than dismissing it and focusing on the few bits that we’ve figured out.

The magic is not in the tools, the principles, or even the system – all of that is purely rational, a cobbled-together piece of mindset engineering. The magic is in the intuition of the human mind when it asks itself the right questions and looks in the right direction. This is what the lean system really offers: What is the next step? What is the ideal? What are the blunders to avoid? Who has a new idea? Do we understand this deeply enough?

And realizing that there is always more to discover. Like the blind men and the elephant, each seeing a snake, a wall, a tree, a brush, we need to love the mystery to get to the results. Which, to tell the truth, is the fun of it.

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