Lean is a verb, not a thing


Lean is a verb, not a thing. Lean is the act of looking for waste, then asking why it’s there, then committing to do something about it, getting others onboard, and trying something. My son leaned us when he pointed out all the plastic we waste drinking bottled water. Even if plastic is recyclable, it needs to be transported, sorted, processed – waste begets waste. My kid pointed out to a specific waste we’d not looked at, got us to agree, got us to invest in a water filter jug and is now badgering us to use it. The solution is not perfect, as we still use some bottled water, but it has reduced our plastic bottle consumption by 50%. Kaizen.

Teamwork is a verb, not a thing. Teamwork is not a magical property of teams, but the deliberate act of solving a problem across functional boundaries. You practice teamwork when you recognize a colleague’s problem and say “what can I do to help?” Kanban is a great tool to visualize where teamwork needs to happen. For example, my co-author Eivind runs a kanban to keep all us continuing to work together beyond having written the book. When someone has posted a piece, they start working on a new one. They often reach out to one other author to discuss topics, and then will reach out again for editing and final proof. Cycle after cycle, as we work together, we enrich our understanding of each other’s thinking, open new avenues, find ways to collaborate better.

Respect is a verb, not a thing. Respect is the act of making a deliberate effort to listen to someone else’s point of view even if it sounds nutty or inconvenient. In what universe what that person is saying could be 100% true? What do they see that I don’t see? What do they know that I don’t know? Respect is the effort to acknowledge that each and everyone has their own opinion about how things are and is trying to solve their own problem, which means, in their terms, correcting a wrong (more rarely, increasing a right), by negotiating their preferred solution with the people around them and then monitoring their progress. As we’re all narrowly focused on our own goals and problems, what other people think, say, do often feels wrong – and so we moralize it. Understanding doesn’t mean agreeing. Respecting others doesn’t mean letting them walk all over you. It means accepting their legitimacy in having a point of view and acting upon it even if, to you, it seems barmy.

Kaizen is a verb, not a thing. Practicing daily lean teamwork and respect create the conditions for acting to eliminate waste. The more you do so, the more natural it becomes (rarely easier though) and the more it accumulates into real performance improvement. Here’s a mental experiment: what is your kaizen takt time? How about one kaizen a day? Personally, I’m not even in the game. Even one kaizen a week feels dubious. I’m probably in the range of one kaizen a month – on a good month. Kaizen starts with the intent to practice kaizen. Today we need to improve something. I got caught by surprise by my friend Eivind’s Kanban on The Lean Sensei posts, so my kaizen intent is to write a new piece as soon as I’ve delivered one to have one ready in the shop stock and reduce my lead-time. I’ve been discussing it with my co-authors, it’s a key point to understand Kanban – but so far not done it. My kaizen spirit is not strong enough.

Humans habituate. We normalize. Low intensity signals get ignored, even when they have huge consequences – think climate change. To understand how lean is a verb, but how we turn it into a thing we can simply look at whether kaizen is something I’ll do when I’ve finished everything elseor something I need to do right now, before the rest, because it will simplify everything else. How many people know they should set up a Kanban, but then think they’ll do it when they’re grown up (even lean guys who should know better). Once you have a kanban in place, how many people actually use it for kaizen as opposed to rely on it for scheduling? Our brains are natural defenders of the status quo. We are motivated to act if something feels wrong. As long as all feels ok, don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.

This is why practicing lean without a sensei is near impossible. You need someone who’s judgement and intentions you respect to keep pointing out the waste and give you the kick up the backside you need to face it. The sensei’s job is not to tell you what to do but to kindle the bright flame of the kaizen spirit. The recipe is 80% approbation, 20% challenge – although when you’re on the receiving end of sensei-ing it rarely feels that way, more like the opposite proportions. I know plastic is a problem. I retweet everything that passes in my feed on it. And yet it took my son’s insistence to actually act to change a habitual behavior – and I see myself backslide every day and grab that plastic bottle rather than the jug. You can never really get rid of a habit, you can only overlay it with another one, which is why kaizen is so easy to do, and so hard to standardize. Don’t think you can do it alone. My kid is my sensei on this one.

Do you want to succeed, or are you happy to stay in the game? Are you ready to change or are you looking for alibi activities in order not to change (lean six sigma projects, anyone?)? Lean is a game-changer, we know that. Lean is also the only method we know to learn to realize our full potential by eliminating layer after layer of cost and offering our customers our best help at the lowest total cost. Results come from the relentless pursuit of kaizen. Lean is about setting up the systems that make kaizen possible by visualizing performance and problems. But without the kaizen spirit, all of this is just for show, as I see every day on many a gemba. Lean needs a sensei to nurture the kaizen spirit and grow it into a kaizen culture. You’re serious about lean? Find a sensei you can work with, go to the gemba and lean it, as a verb, not a thing.20200115_135205 20200115_135219 20200115_135223

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