No Santa Claus?


In Western culture, parents encourage young children to believe mythological characters such as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. They are part of the magic and fun of early childhood and parenting. Other cultures have similar mythological characters for children. Parents who encourage these beliefs are, technically speaking, lying to their children. But little harm comes from it. Around the age of 7 or 8, children begin to question the existence of these mythological characters and pass into the next phase of childhood. Few adults hold a grudge against their parents for being misled about these mythological characters in their earliest years.

Parents are authority figures who shape children’s and young adult’s understanding of the world. Company presidents and our boss at work fulfill a similar role. So do famous people in diverse fields who develop new knowledge or who significantly expand existing knowledge. We look to these people for different types of guidance and understanding. But unlike children, adults can be damaged by the truth. It has serious consequences in relation to one’s job, income, lifestyle, and family. Therefore, authority figures have an extraordinary responsibility to do the best they can to imbue their followers with the facts and realistic thinking. It can be a difficult challenge, one that is often goes unfulfilled due to a perceived need to shape narratives that better suit one’s needs or goals.

Lean management sounds simple, but it requires the development of a complex understanding of its many facets. Beyond the tools and methods, it requires curiosity, learning myriad nuances and details, development of tacit knowledge and creativity, human interaction and subtle cause-and-effect relationships, acceptance of ambiguity, humility, respect, and more. It also requires a clear-eyed view of what it takes to make progress given the barriers that exist. Invariably, the barriers are glossed over or ignored, as if they are insignificant or only slightly troublesome. As a result, people proceed with a positive gung-ho business attitude.

The business of Lean fully supports this can-do attitude and does little to offer blunt facts and realistic thinking as to the type and number of difficulties that nearly everyone can expect to encounter. Absent this information, people discover, sooner or later, that improvement is much more difficult than they thought. After some contemplation, they don’t know why it is so hard and simply subscribe to the common anecdotes to explain their experiences and frustrations.

Unfortunately, it seems the business of Lean does not want its devotees to know the facts of the matter and how many and how real the barriers are. These influential people (“parents”) want you to keep believing in Santa Claus (or the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy if you prefer); that the barriers are insignificant or only slightly troublesome. To keep the mythology alive, they flood Lean devotees (“children”) with a steady stream of motivating success stories and only occasional stories of struggle or failure. In short, they do not think their followers are up to the challenge of learning and improving. Why do you follow such people?

This intransigence is a great disservice to the Lean community, damaging to the Lean movement, and harmful to the credibility of Lean, its creators, and its advocates. It reflects a lack of confidence in Lean devotees’ ability to accept the truth and productively respond to it. Hiding the truth for so many years transforms it into a deception that is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to undo. The loss of face would be devastating. This being the general case, there will be a significant number of Lean people — movement leaders and followers — who prefer not to know or acknowledge the truth. They will either avoid the subject or continue asking why Lean does not have a bigger following among business leaders.

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Face the facts. Learn the reality so that you can improve.

Nearly everyone who learns the reality of the situation is disillusioned — their worst fears have been confirmed, that most senior leaders have no interest in Lean management. Some give up and decide to move on. But most people experience disillusionment only briefly — a few days or a few weeks. Having accepted the truth, they are more grown up and more knowledgeable. Stronger, confident, and capable, they pick themselves up and move forward. They do not give up. Aware of the many barriers, they refocus their efforts in more productive ways based on their new knowledge of the facts. The set new goals and come up with new ideas to try.

These practical “management scientists” are the future. No longer reliant on motivational Lean success stories from their “parents,” they remain committed to progressive management. They accept the truth of the situation and recognize the way to move forward is by developing and testing new hypotheses. I have no doubt that their intelligence, creativity, and practical experiments will yield new and useful findings, for which there is a great need.

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