Why I believe in lean thinking
There are stormy days ahead. The climate forces we’ve woken up will be slow and unstoppable, triggering both natural and human catastrophes. We know that. We don’t know what and when – or how we’ll react.
Rather than live with the anguish of the train wreck around the corner, we can accept that changing circumstances will require adapting, which means very concrete decisions, taken one after the other. These decisions won’t be easy: they’ll be arbitrages. We’ll probably have to choose between unpalatable options, but choose we will have to. And do so collectively.
I believe in lean thinking because when I look at how leaders decide today, I find it simply mad. Time and time again, we see them jump to short term solutions that benefit their self-interest or their immediate followers’ and mostly make the situation worse. We see it once the dust has settled. We’ve known forever that faulty, sometimes crazy, decisions are born from making wrong assumptions. From the overconfidence of knowing, godlike, what is happening and what has to be done – and triggering the very catastrophe one wanted to avoid.
Smart decisions can be made when the problem is better understood and we are set on solving the right problem. This can’t be done by oneself, in isolation: it requires listening to a multitude of perspectives, seeing the situation in all its facets with dragonfly eyes and creating consensus on what the problem really is among its many stakeholders.
To do so we cannot simply resolve large problems by decree, by email, or by gutsy intuition. We need to engage everyone all the time in solving small problems. Making things work day-to-day is a perfect training space to practice the try-fail-analyze-try again cycle on which all scientific thinking is built. Clearly, this is hard to do on all our busy lives, but each and everyone of us can be encouraged to choose a topic and have a go – this is what kaizenis about.
Practicing kaizen leads to develop the Kaizen spirit, the secret sauce of lean. Clarifying roles and responsibilities, developing more tools and systems won’t help to solve critical problem unless one adds the magic ingredient of the kaizen spirit – developed over time by all people practicing kaizen in their daily lives.
People at ease with the spirit and practice of kaizen see why it is important to converge on the problem before discussing solutions. It’s a human chemical reaction. Discussing problems creates energy and binds people together in a common dynamic. Arguing about solution leads to confrontation (my solution is better than yours) and dampens the chemical reaction until the most powerful wins – only to lose later at implementation.
Formulating a common view of the problem is also the key to coming with new ideas locally, sharing them and building on them until larger solutions can be hammered out. Such co-construction of solutions lets people adapt to change as they contribute to it, so that when a decision is taken, even if it’s not what they originally have in mind they’ve had time to see the logic of it, the sense-making, and where they fit in this, the meaning-making.
All decisions create winners and losers – this is unavoidable. Imposing arbitrary decisions involves rewarding the winners and making sure the losers take it on the chin, often through pressure tactics, threats or the naked use of power. This destroys mutual trust, focuses the situation on internal strife and makes us weaker in the face of the real challenge. By contrast, in taking time to involve everyone in clarifying the problem, we can also see how to console the losers so that they remain within the polity and committed to the change – as opposed to put their energies in fighting it.
Lean thinking starts with the commitment to make things work, as they are. This means clarifying and visualizing the logistics of delivery and quality to make sure that when people use products or services, they work as expected. To do so, every person involved must solve small problems right now, and practice with the try-fail-analyze-try again cycle. And indeed, at leadership level, we can invest in, first making sure they won’t be blamed for trying something new and, second, training all people all the time at observation and analysis – and trying: the kaizen spirit.
Reacting on the spot to delivery or technical problems allows us to start thinking in terms of larger issues: why do these problems occur? What are the conditions we’re not taking care of that create them? What has changed in the environment that requires a change on our part? These changes can be discussed collectively until we are confident that we are solving the right problem. The leaders’ role is not to decide arbitrarily, but to coordinate the debate and then, yes, to arbitrate. It is still decision-making, but a different way of making decisions.
Finally, once the common challenge is better understood, solutions will emerge from everyone’s trying local changes in the right direction. We see this currently happening with the circular economy. Certainly, each individual attempt at re-use is flawed and doesn’t seem to impact the global problem, but if we look at the bigger picture and find ways to make all these experiments to converge, we will see larger, more impactful – and more importantly – more sustainable solutions emerge.
This, in short, is lean thinking. This is why lean thinking companies perform better and are more agile. They invest first in their people and fostering a kaizen spirit. Their leaders understand that their job is to arbitrate, not decide in a vacuum; coordinate, not just give orders; and foremost, take care or every person and given the tools and the space for their own personal development, in any way they want.
Sure, when we look around, society doesn’t seem to go that way at all. Leaders’ egos at are an all-time high. Financiers gorge themselves on society as they excoriate it and leave the rest of us with less and less. We increasingly rely on our smartphones for immediate answers, trusting either in AIs or our gut to react rather than make the effort of constructing careful analyses, breaking down factors and asking ourselves: what do we know, what do we don’t know? Which is precisely why learning and teaching lean thinking matters now more than ever. The kaizen room is large, the door is narrow – but we know where the door is (open any book on lean, then another, then another). Our challenge is to step over the threshold.