Lean Intellectualism

RecipesIn a previous blog post, I defined Lean intellectualism as “substituting knowing for doing, an over-emphasis on thinking and under-emphasis on doing, which includes the ability to speak fluently about Lean management but without ever actually having done anything of significance.” Basically, to create an appearance of being intelligent about Lean and limit the conversation to the things that are easy to understand and do – much like recipes. That has resulted in a lot more Lean talking than Lean doing in the workplace. It seems the gap between brain-on thinking and hands-on doing has grown wide over time.

Lean intellectualism is an esoteric and cultured way of Lean thinking, versus its original intent, as expressed by those who created Toyota’s management system: Go to the genba and get your hands dirty using trial-and-error to reduce costs by creating flow. Lean is not a sophisticated way of thinking among intellectual elites. It is a practical way of thinking among the people who are responsible for doing the work that satisfies customers, which includes everyone from top leaders to shop and office floor associates.

Many of the original group of people who created Toyota’s production system were high school educated. They had to learn by doing. Even those who were college educated had to learn by doing because college courses did not teach process improvement or how to create flow. Practical outcomes such as cost reduction, higher quality, shorter lead-times, and so on could not be learned in the classroom.

We would all do better with Lean management, and especially with kaizen, if we consider ourselves no more than high school educated, which is just about all the education that is truly necessary to create Toyota’s management system in your organization. That means not knowing the answer to how to bring abnormal conditions closer to the standard. So, instead, you have to make improvements by actually doing things such as making prototypes and running simulations with you own hands. That way, you learn by doing and avoid getting bogged down in debate with yourself or others who have too much education and who like to talk.

The best sensei are mysterious and do not answer questions — but they tell you what to do (e.g. Do that with half the number of ___; I want you to double that; get it done by 2 pm today; connect the processes;
reduce the batch size by half; etc.). Their rationale is this:

  • I don’t have the answer
  • I don’t know your precise situation
  • People must learn to think for themselves
  • People must take action to improve their thinking

In addition, answering one questions leads to having to answer more questions, and then many more questions, and often the same question over and over again. Thus, time is spent answering questions and not in providing direction towards the practical goal of cost reduction and flow at the genba.

Lean intellectualism has with it a desire to answer any and all questions, both casually and when engaged in research. As a professor doing research, I ask a lot of questions and work hard to find answers to those questions. University is the correct setting for Lean intellectualism. But, when I was a business unit manager, my interest was in eliminating abnormalities that prohibited cost reduction, shorter lead-times, higher quality in the products we manufactured. More recently in my role as a teacher, my interest has been to create much better learning experiences for my students. Practical workplace needs come first.

It is unlikely that we can stop answering questions either casually or as part of academic research. But, we face a risk in freely answering questions about Lean in the workplace: That Lean management fails to take root and evolve to create better tomorrows for people; to reduce human suffering and increase innovative and creative contributions that improve the human condition. We must advance the practice of Lean management to the point where people leave work healthier than when they arrived. That is the future of Lean.

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