Lean Thinking in 10 Words

Pascal Dennis, in his book Getting the Right Things Done sums up lean thinking in 10 words:

“What should be happening?”

“What is actually happening?”

“Please explain.”

I would contend that everything else we do is digging out answers to those questions. (yes, there is a bit of hyperbole here, but I want to get you to think about how true this is vs. how false it might be.)

I think “lean thinking” is really a structured curiosity. Let’s take a look at how these questions push us toward improvement.

“What should be happening?” is another form of Toyota Kata’s “What is your target condition?” In our conversations, we often jump straight to “We need to…” language, a solution, without being clear what the problem is.

I’ll set that back by asking questions like “What would be happening if the problem is solved?” “Can you describe that?”

When Toyota trained people ask “What is the standard?” this is what they want to know, because, to them, a “problem” = “a deviation from the standard.”

“What is actually happening?” or “What is the actual condition now?”– Once we are clear where we are trying to go, it is important to grasp where we are now in the same terms as the target.

Something I see quite a bit is a target condition expressed with different terms, measures, and variables than the current condition. You must be able to relate between the two in a way that defines and quantifies the gap that must be closed.

“Please Explain” cuts across the current condition and the obstacles (in kata terms). What do you understand about the gap between what should be happening and what is actually happening?

If the process has deteriorated, what has changed? Why is it that we cannot hit the standard today when, last week, we could? When did it change? What do we know about that? Why did it change?

If you tried to run to the new level, what would keep you from doing it that way? (what obstacles do you think are now preventing you from reaching your target?)

Depending on which of these conditions we are dealing with will fundamentally change the path toward a solution, so it is critical we understand “What should be happening?” or “What is the target condition?” as a first step, then look at the history of the actual condition.

If the process has eroded, what do we know about what has changed in the environment?

All of this is the foundational baseline… the minimum understanding I want to hear before we entertain any discussion about what actions to take, what to change, what to do.

One Reply to “Lean Thinking in 10 Words”

  1. Hi Mark

    I have long used the first question What should be happening, whether something has gone wrong or whether you are just looking to do better, you can only get there if you know where you are trying to go. So if you cannot define a state you will never be able to attain it.

    The second question I have used is actually shorter “What is happening?” is in reality an even shorter identical question. If people do not grasp it mean what is actually occurring, you have far bigger issues to deal with, before any improvement is possible. And my last question is always just “why?” simply because I assume people know that we need to be discussing the difference between where we are now and where we want to be.

    To me as a general rule, if people cannot grasp simple issues without their hands being held, you need to first deal with getting them on the same page, and bringing them to a similar understanding. It has never surprised me how disconnected many people are within an organization, but to get them working in the right direction, you need to first get them connected and talking the same language. After that you can get them to work together and they can solve the problems prevent their performance improvement.

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