Regular readers of this blog, as well as my Twitter and LinkedIn feeds, will know that in recent months I have posted many critiques on various aspects related to the products, promotion, and practice of Lean management. Why now? The reason is that 20 years of engagement in Lean offers the unique opportunity to reflect back on what has happened – to take the long view and see what has worked well (some things) and what needs to be improved (a lot).
In Lean, we are taught to do many things, including how to observe processes (stand in the Ohno circle), how to think critically (ask “Why?”), and how to reflect on what we have learned (hansei). So, as part of my work as a Lean practitioner, I observe, I think critically, and I reflect. As part of my job as an academic, I write about what I see and what I have learned. That has displeased many influential people.
If you have read my books, you know that my criticisms have been consistent over the years and that my style of writing is always honest and direct. Why? Because the fundamental thing I learned on day one of my first shop floor kaizen was to see reality as it really is, no matter how ugly it is. As a consequence, changes made based on reality result in actual improvement, not the appearance of improvement.
Another thing I learned after a few shop floor kaizens was to challenge everything I saw all the time because waste is endless. That means to challenge your preconceptions every day to avoid illogical thinking and decision-making traps that pull you back towards the waste-filled current state.
Some have said that in my criticism I have made personal attacks on people. Others say that I am angry or desperate, unfair and inaccurate, and so on. These reactions to my critiques show the power of the amygdala to produce an emotional response in preference to a rational response. This, despite many of the displeased being skilled critical thinkers, adept at PDCA, 5Whys, A3 thinking, and so on. But, please don’t feel sorry for me. Instead, use your brainpower to ponder this question: “Why did political correctness become part of the Lean movement, and how does this form of behavioral waste make anything better?”
Criticism is one of the ways in which knowledge advances. It is a type of thoughtful feedback (and subsequent dialogue) that helps expose blind spots, identify misunderstandings, provide alternate explanations, or uncover errors that others cannot see or are unwilling to acknowledge. Feedback does not always come as compliments, a form that is surely deemed respectful while criticism often is not. Skilled leaders recognize the many different forms of feedback. Instead of ignoring criticism, they value it and respect it because it can be an early warning of problems that lie ahead. It informs leaders of what needs to be improved.
Without criticism from others, we are unlikely to challenge our own thinking or escape the comfort of self-satisfaction. We fall prey to the confirmation bias and accept information that confirms one’s views and reject all information that does not. We also develop a love for the status quo. Criticism is rejected without consideration and attributed to people who are simply uninformed or who suffer from professional jealousies.
The outcome is blocked information flow, which is the opposite of what we seek to achieve in Lean management. Unwillingness to comprehend and act upon external feedback is unlikely to help the Lean movement. The more likely outcome is that it will, over time, do great harm. Confirmation bias and status quo can be found as causes in every failure.
Over the last 20 years, I have noticed increasing levels of group-think and satisfaction among people who promote a management practice that abhors group-think and satisfaction. This reflects professional dishonesty and a lack of self-awareness. Yet, such leaders still have many followers. If you can no longer trust your leaders, then you have no alternative but to think for yourself.
Vested interests are remarkably durable because they are supported by various decision-making traps: anchoring, status quo, sunk cost, confirming evidence, framing, and estimating/forecasting. And they are buttressed by illogical thinking: avoiding the force of reason, false assumptions, red herring, and special pleading, to name a few. Lean people are well-known for criticizing managers who favor preserving vested interests over needed change. Yet, some leaders and businesses associated with the Lean movement have erected walls of vested interests that exclude useful information and diversity of thought.
How far can a movement advance if vested interests become more important than the movement itself?