The Problem with Lean Thinking

It’s not so much the word “Lean” that is the problem. It is the word “thinking” that is the problem. “Thinking” is a chronic problem among non-Lean people, but it includes Lean people as well. We cannot or do not want to think. Or we think we think, but we do not think. On top of that is a management system found in most organizations that does not let people think (classical management). Sensei Chihiro Nakao tells us that we must think like a 9 year-old; the age before we become programmed by preconceptions and traditions that inhibit our ability to think. This is indeed difficult to do, but also what makes it worth doing.

Massimo Illustration

This is a long-simmering problem that has only recently become apparent (see the image below). As I said in the previous blog post:

People enthusiastically refer to Toyota’s management system as the “Thinking Management System,” yet fail to grasp the extent and effectiveness of tradition as a near-total replacement for thinking among business leaders.

But it is not just business leaders. The same is true for Lean people. We fail to grasp the extent and effectiveness of tradition as a near-total replacement for our own thinking. We operate under an illusion that our efforts to promote Lean are not bound by conventional wisdom. In fact, we remain committed to traditional methods. What is new and innovative in terms of promoting Lean management to the target audience of senior managers? Nothing, as far as I can see.

Traditions are algorithms that program human beings to be more like machines, neither unique nor irreplaceable — akin to a CNC machine that runs on a program but cannot think for itself. It leads to a “synthetic consciousness” — meaning, we are not truly awake to the problems in front of our faces and not sufficiently awake to do think of creative and simple ways to correct the problems. We need is to reawaken our natural-born consciousness of wonderment, curiosity, exploration, and experimentation.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming said: “A bad system will beat a good person every time.” I would put it this way: Traditions will beat a better system almost every time. That is what has happened to Lean management and Lean thinking. With rare exceptions, they have been soundly beaten by traditions. That might change in the future, but maybe not. To quote my friend Massimo Torinesi:

Everyone reads the same things. Everyone has the same thoughts. Everyone does the same things.

Perhaps that is a small exaggeration, but it certainly rings more true than not. There is a great lack of thinking and creativity. The ubiquity of various Lean tools absent the requisite thinking and the mutilation of Lean tools is a testament to people reading the same thing, having the same thoughts, and doing the same things. It is concrete evidence of a pervasive unwillingness or inability to think. It reflects, in part, the ritual of reciprocity between people, to fit in and thus avoid the social costs of thinking differently. But it gets you nowhere.

Challenge yourself. Escape synthetic consciousness. Read something different. Have different thoughts. Do different things.

TCM II MM3
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