leanblog.org “10 Lean Things Not to Say”

Fellow blogger Mark Grabon recently posted “10 Things I Wish Lean Practitioners Wouldn’t Say in 2010” on his leanblog.org.

I like it enough that my thoughts won’t fit in an appropriate comment on his blog, so I’ll write them here. Go back and read his post first, though, or you won’t make sense of this one.

Added last: This turned into a stream of consciousness that ranges on a variety of topics. You are getting a bit of insight into how my mind works here.  🙂

“Lean them out” — “Get them lean” — “What would lean say?” — “Is that lean?”

In the context of “lean production” or “lean manufacturing,” the word “lean” is an adjective. It is not a noun, it is not a verb. I would argue that you can’t even get agreement about what it means in a room of “experts.” Today we have spliced other words to it, like “Sigma” that dilute it even more – implying that it needs something else to be complete without every saying what was missing in the first place.

The word “lean” has taken on a life of its own. As Mark points out, it even issues judgments as in “What would lean say about…” as though phrasing the question this way somehow quotes an objective source instead of someone’s opinion.

Sensei says…

Aside from introducing the word “lean” into the vernacular, Womack and Jones also made having a “Sensei” an imperative. Now I am seeing consultants, even non-Japanese ones, brand themselves as “Sensei.” Worse, there are consultants and other agencies who preport to “certify you” as a “Sensei.”

As Mark points out, the Western use of the term differs from the everyday use in Japan. Our meaning likely comes from martial arts classes. When I was at a previous company, people I worked with tried to apply the term to me. Like Mark, I objected. As they were insisting, I “allowed” them to use the word “sempai” and told them that was just someone who had been in the martial arts class a week longer. In reality, the only thing that differentiates teachers and students in the business is a bit of experience and something to say. But, as I said previously, what sets apart a master is that he has mastered learning.

Counting kaizen events.

Bluntly, this is one of the most effective ways I know to derail a journey of continuous improvement. The behaviors that are driven by counting kaizen events are counter to the very things we are trying to accomplish. If you aren’t sure why, ask yourself if a team member taking his own initiative and drilling some holes in a block of wood so that he can hold his bolts is a kaizen event or not.

Variations on the theme of Buy In / Resistance to Change are pervasive in the forums and in real life. And professional kaizen practitioners are not immune to denying that someone has found a breakthrough that they hadn’t.

But, sorry folks, there is nowhere on Earth where you can avoid the necessity to understand other people’s needs and feelings and take them into account. Not, at least, where you are dealing with other people. So, even if you are in a company that totally “gets it,” you had best develop the skills to do this.

Why? Because you aren’t going to “lean anybody out” without their total, complete and enthusiastic cooperation. The reason is simple. Until they are doing it themselves, without prompting, without being pushed, without being boxed in by coercive approaches, it simply isn’t working. You can’t force people to be creative problem solvers. They have to like doing it.

This is the challenge of the true change agent. Like what I said in the previous post about job shops, if you aren’t getting clear answers about how to get people involved, you are talking to the wrong person. Try someone else.

And finally is the jargon of our community. Some of it is Japanese, other terms are inherited from other disciplines like organizational development.

Jargon has two purposes. One is it provides people in a specific field or organization a clear means of communicating with one another. The legal profession, for example, is full of Latin terms that require paragraphs to define. So are military organizations. And an organization will often have a language of its own that members use internally. You won’t know the difference between a blueline, a greenline or an IW unless you have worked in Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Toyota has this corporate jargon. They have redefined a fair number of common Japanese terms that, today, carry very specific meanings within the Toyota context. Kanban, jidoka, yamazumi and even kaizen are some of those words. That is all well and fine for Toyota. It gives them a common shorthand so they can communicate more efficiently.

The more insidious use of jargon, though, is for a group to use it to exclude others from the “in” circle. Rather than being a shorthand to enable communication within the group, jargon becomes an obfuscation to disable communication, establish a sense of mystery, and differentiate those who “know” from those who are not yet enlightened.

So how do I feel about Japanese jargon in this context? Only you know. Look in the mirror. Check your purpose. Why do you feel the need to use it? How do you feel when you use it? Do you feel that it shows you know more than someone who does not use it? Do you take pride in making elaborate explanations of these terms? If so, I feel you are doing it for the wrong reasons. I don’t say not to use it. I do say to check your intentions. Are you doing so out of respect for people, or to elevate your own status? Then act according to your own conscience.

I have gone a lot deeper into this stuff than Mark did, and I am not nearly as well organized. Ah well. You get the benefit of seeing one of my raw brain dumps.

11 thoughts on “leanblog.org “10 Lean Things Not to Say”

  1. We really like the Toyota example and we think also that in Lean Manufacturing is important reducing inefficiency and waste. However to achieve success in lean manufacturing requires reliable equipment, and this can only be achieved by addressing your maintenance.

    1. Reliable equipment is absolutely required for flow, and improving flow is what lean is about. In lean production, anything that disrupts flow or presents an obstacle to improving flow is a problem to be addressed. Equipment reliability is something that is specifically called out as a key component in any credible model of the Toyota Production System. So is quality, and above all of them is safety.

      Anyone who implements “lean” while believing they can ignore their quality or equipment reliability (or quality, or variation, or safety) is not actually implementing lean manufacturing. They are just dabbling with some of the concepts while ignoring key problems.

  2. Hi,

    The following section just says everything about Lean – and one of the major challenges working with Lean:

    “Why? Because you aren’t going to “lean anybody out” without their total, complete and enthusiastic cooperation. The reason is simple. Until they are doing it themselves, without prompting, without being pushed, without being boxed in by coercive approaches, it simply isn’t working. You can’t force people to be creative problem solvers. They have to like doing it.”

    I can’t agree more! The critical skill that has to be handled by the top management is to give the organization some kind of job security. And if they can’t give such a guarantee – they should set the first team from the beginning!

    I work as a consultant and I often see employees not being 100% committed to Lean – simply because they are afraid loosing their job!

    1. ALL companies have “guiding principles” – values and beliefs that frame their decisions. Those things are generally tacit, and below the level of awareness.

      I think if a company has to calculate their guiding principles and discuss them, then those principles are more of a wish than actually guiding anything. Cultural change does not happen with anything so vague.

  3. I agree ALL organizations and individuals have guiding principles whether they know it or not. However some are authentic and others are regurgitation of writings from the last book read. Those type leaders are as authentic as a toy in a Cracker Jack box. True leaders teach guiding, principles, ethics and leadership through actions no words. You are correct.

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