Lean and Learning

TBV Bust

University Boards of Trustees are populated mostly by business leaders, followed by former politicians and other community leaders. As such, Boards tend to reflect business needs and interests. Only rarely are experienced classroom teachers and researchers (i.e., academics) found on Boards of Trustees. Isn’t it odd that those who preside over institutions devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and truth are led by people who don’t have as much interest or experience in that as the faculty or students? Over time, Boards of Trustees have placed increasing pressure on universities to transform from that which broadly benefits society to a more businesslike enterprise where student enrollment and retention (sales), employment post-graduation, and income are principal measures of institutional success. Higher education focused on critical thinking and scientific problem-solving is generally divergent to business interests, a domain wherein one does what the boss asks regardless of if it makes sense. Yet, faculty always hears from business leaders how graduates need better training in critical thinking and problem-solving.

There is an analogous situation in Lean-world, where Lean is often said to be “all about learning.” The phrase sounds enticing. But it does not take much thinking to comprehend that there is a incompatibility between the culture of business leadership (values narrowly associated with money-making) and the culture of Lean management which seeks to discover knowledge and learn the truth (and which might uncover defects in certain money-making values). Companies are comprised of senior management teams. Among such teams, who are the advocates for scientific thinking? Most likely, no one. Even senior executives with advanced degrees in science typically capitulate to the institution of leadership and the exigencies of business and offer little support for clear-headed logical thinking by the lower ranks. The composition of senior management teams exclude representation by those employees who are devoted to discovering knowledge and learning the truth. Yet employees are required to take training courses to improve their critical thinking and scientific problem-solving skills. Requiring employees to follow orders and to think critically is incongruous to all but leaders.

Universities, whose mission is learning, and which is populated by full- and part-time faculty whose job it is to learn and teach others, yet they are disallowed participation on Boards of Trustees. So what do professors do to be heard? There are various standing and ad hoc committees that provide forums for discussing and formalizing grievances. But whatever documentation is produced, no matter how accurate and cogent its arguments are, enters the Board of Trustees governance process as nothing more than information for them to consider, much the same as that which comes from any other stakeholder. Most often, the submittals by faculty are ignored or formally rejected post haste. In other words, there is recourse, but to no effect, especially in lower-tier institutions, even though faculty have a vested interest in the institution (unlike some other stakeholders).

In business, employees who seek to discover knowledge and learn the truth, but are thwarted, have no recourse but to find more hospitable employment somewhere inside or outside the company. It is common to hear of enthusiastic Lean practitioners to be shut down by their bosses and told to stop thinking and stop promoting Lean, and sternly advised to be quiet and do as they are told. All the talk of “Lean culture” means to gain alignment between the senior management team and those who do the work to think scientifically. But, as I have conclusively shown in my recent writings, there is a near-impenetrable divide between how business problems are solved and how technical problems are solved. Leaders lead by right (de jure) and worker do their work by facts (de facto), and the problem-solving routines for these are different.

Both university professors and Lean practitioners want their top leaders to lead more by facts, than by right. But they have no good argument and no leverage to get them to do that, short of walking out en masse for a day or a week or a month to make their point heard and to forcefully precipitate needed change. People at the bottom of organizations are loathed to take such action because they cannot withstand the financial consequences. Social or reputational consequences, if any, are usually not significant factors in such decision-making. These people need their income and leaders know that so they can disregard the facts almost anytime they wish to do so.

So when people say “Lean is all about learning,” they tap into an ancient and deeply rooted conflict in both corporate culture and daily work activity that has a very low probability of being resolved. Essentially, workers are put into a straitjacket, conscientiously doing their work and striving to learn and improve while forced to face the reality that most top leaders don’t much care and are unlikely to change. The facts that workers uncover and share with their leaders are waived away more often than not. Resolution, where it occurs, is more by luck than by good thinking. Some top leaders are predisposed to lead more by facts than by right. The one or two percent who think this way seems to be steady in number over time, never growing. That says something about the established understanding of business and leadership as it pertains to both universities and companies. It seems unlikely that continuation of this archaic way of thinking will in any way be beneficial to our future.

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