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At a World Bank conference in October, Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argued that the key to modern industrial policy is “learning to learn” (how do we create a learning culture and a learning mindset?) and acknowledges how Toyota’s invention of just-in-time production spread around the world and created enormous increases of efficiency well outside of Toyota’s sphere of interest. (Ahem, that would be the Lean movement, let’s pat ourselves on the back!).
And here in France, the very institutional daily Le Monde recently had a piece on Lean in its “culture and ideas” pages. It looks like lean ideas are becoming mainstream.
Indeed it seems like every one and their dog is doing Lean. Lean has become the dominant value-improvement methodology. We’re no longer a bunch of crazy guys fascinated with Toyota’s exponential growth, astonishing processes, and exotic senseis. We’ve grown up. The blogosphere is loud with people expressing sharing their personal take on Lean.
But what “Lean” are we talking about? Is it the “to develop products we need to develop people” Lean we’ve been taught? Or is it the “improve productivity to reduce costs” Lean corporate types like. Or both?
In learning theory, the psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget distinguishes assimilating thinking (making new facts or ideas fit with existing mental models) versus accommodating thinking (changing one’s own mindset to fit new facts or ideas). Assimilation means seeing a zebra as a small striped horse; accommodation means realizing zebras are a distinct species, with different behaviors and a different place in the eco-system, and so we change our list of species to accommodate zebras.
Assimilation is the default mode for most humans, to the point of cognitive dissonance. We deny information that challenges our own deeply held beliefs. This is one of the more stable findings of social psychology, backed up with thousands of experiments. Accommodation (aka “getting it”) is hard work and rare.
A few lean ideas have indeed spread well beyond the lean movement. “Batch is bad and flow is good” is still hard to do in practice, but is no longer disputed. Improvement (whatever that means!) is a key part of running any operation. Facilities should be 5S-ed. Problem solving rather than telling/delegating is also making it’s way in the business zeitgeist.
But many other core lean ideas are still far from being picked up as common sense because they require a deep change of outlook for most executives and lean practitioners: customer usage versus customer education, gemba versus boardroom, operator focus versus middle management focus, kaizen versus action plan, PDCA versus big ideas, intense collaboration versus team spirit, etc.
I suspect the war has moved on and that the front is no longer “Lean or not Lean.” Everyone believes they’re doing Lean, but many have assimilated Lean to traditional Taylor-ist thinking and are using lean tools to even further micro-manage the work of team members, as I’ve seen in many scary uses of short interval control boards. In many companies I visit, the lean program’s focus remains on middle-management accelerating implementation of action plans, rather than helping the operator solve their detailed problems and encourage suggestions and involvement.
No rest for the weary or the wicked alike… the fight is now about the very meaning of the “Lean” word. We’re all doing Lean these days, but just what kind of Lean is it? There is a straightforward acid test to know which side of this barricade you find yourself.
Just ask: “What is the mission of the operator with the tool I’ve just introduced?”
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