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Lean Lessons from Cobra Kai(zen) and the Karate Kid

by Michael Ballé
September 24, 2020

Lean Lessons from Cobra Kai(zen) and the Karate Kid

by Michael Ballé
September 24, 2020 | Comments (8)

Have you had a chance to catch Cobra Kai, Netflix’s latest hit show? The premise is brilliant. It takes up the Karate Kid storyline 30 years later from the perspective of the villain, Johnny Lawrence, the high school bully who pushed the Karate Kid’s teenage hero, Daniel Larusso, to learn traditional Okinawa Karate from the ultimate sensei, Mr. Miyagi.

The show continues to focus on the original characters. Johnny Lawrence is down on his luck, an angry bitter failure both professionally and as a parent, and reconstruct his life by resuscitating the “Cobra Kai” dojo – which brings a horrified Daniel Larusso into the game. But, with his sensei now deceased, the character has lost his moral compass and gets pulled into a cycle of violence that he is helpless to stop. It’s like watching the karate version of Bad Santa – the central concept is … bad sensei. It's worth watching now, for you will receive a touching reminder of how to coach another in a foreign set of ideas with great applicability for today's challenges.

Lean is a response to a challenge that seemed obvious back in the day: how to improve performance by improving the connection, skills, and engagement of everyone so as to create better outcomes for the company and society at large?The show is great fun, my kids love it and it prompted us to re-watch the original Karate Kid flick together. Now, that movie is a gem. No bad scenes, memorable characters, touching moments (the sensei character is an American war hero who’s family was incarcerated at Manzanar). The movie’s greatest gimmick is teaching karate through doing housework: cleaning cars (wax on, wax off), sanding floors (right circle, left circle), painting fences (up, down, up, down): teaching the body the essential moves of karate. It captured the imagination of a generation, and defined the image of what a “sensei” looks like – a term that then migrated into the lean language. The years have barely diminished the pleasure of watching it again, and, curiously, in these days of electing bullies around the world, the core intrigue sadly resonates – when will people realize authoritarian leaders are simply bad news?

Teaching a Timeless Set of Values

Watching it as an adult, however, it struck me that the nostalgia it evoked was not just about earlier days. Things have changed. At the time, the movie perfectly captured our discovery of, and infatuation with, Japan. My father had started going to Japan regularly ten years before the movie came out. He tried to learn the language (he is still trying, actually. Last time we went to Japan he spent two weeks in a language class). He took up Karate and dragged me to the lessons every week. He found a sensei who, in retrospect, was very much a French Mr. Miyagi – in love with the deeper concepts of budo. As it says in the movie, I was (supposedly) taught to fight (hated every moment of it) in order…to not have to fight. But what about now, I wondered. I loved it again and got caught up in what the writer and director wanted to convey. But what, I wondered, were the values they were portraying back then that felt so captivating?

The explicit values portrayed in the film are:

  1. Balance: Good balance is the key to victory in a fight, but more importantly, practice to find balance in life, which is stated as one’s ultimate life purpose.
  2. Use your head: Repeatedly, the sensei exhorts the student to use his head, not his gut, to figure things out. He also demonstrates clear thinking in getting out of sticky situations without having to fight (as a storyline, this has limits, but the point is stressed time and time again).
  3. Connections: The film conveys a sense of deep bonding, in the sensei-student relationship, but also in the mother-son relationship, as well as, of course, a summer of young love.
  4. The importance of attitude and responsibility: “no such thing as a bad student, only bad teacher” is the surprising moral of the story – look to the source of the problem, the attitudes and the role models, beyond the behavior.
  5. Competence: Of course, learning new skills through repeated effort, from punching to driving or bonsai pruning, opens up new possibilities, new options, and new ways to improve one’s situation. Precision through practice is the key to succeeding against the odds.
  6. Inner beauty: Finally, one key feature that makes the film so attractive is its depiction of inner, hidden beauty: the local handyman’s tool shed is in fact a bonsai nursery. In the middle of a dump you find this lovely traditional Japanese home. And in the midst of its zen garden, on a derelict stump, the sensei practices the beautiful crane technique no one is supposed to see. While beauty is ever present in the film, this is not show-off beauty; this is peaceful, hidden, cherry blossom beauty that is cultivated for its own sake and not for display or profit.

These values, I believe, resonate with all the old-style lean practitioners. Indeed, they echo closely the values of the Toyota Way: Go and see, Challenge, Kaizen, Respect and Teamwork.

What struck me most is that these values seem to have disappeared from the current discourse. You won’t find them on LinkedIn or on your twitter feed. The chatter there is all about growth hacking, or complaining about this or that intolerable action of one celebrity or other. It’s all about purchasing apps for quick results to enhance your life without having to think about why, how or what. It’s all about now, now, the short time of response, and not the long time of deliberation, practice and learning.

Lean is a response to a challenge that seemed obvious back in the day: How to improve performance by improving the connection, skills, and engagement of everyone so as to create better outcomes for the company and society at large? How to better align individual fulfilment and corporate destiny so that all benefit? Lean was one way to do so. It never occurred to me that the questions itself could vanish.

Today, corporations use zero-interest rates loans to buy back their own shares in order to raise share price. Activist shareholders argue that the only thing to do is increase revenue and reduce expenses at every opportunity and all will be well. The only thing that matters is shareholder value. IT and AI offer ever-expanding means of engineering processes so that employees have less and less latitude in their jobs, and many companies have responded to people working at home because of the pandemic by upping their monitoring and control techniques. Monetization is the name of the game.

And monetization is the only value I hear discussed in companies these days. Forget about balance, or customer relationships, or honing new skills or acquiring new ones. Increase revenues or reduce expenses are the only two opportunities I hear about. Customers complain? No matter as long as they pay. One client account represents 85 percent of our business. How is it a problem? look at the fees we rake in. People are unhappy? So? They’re getting paid, aren’t they? The product is less than it could be? We’re within budget. As social psychologist Amy Cuddy notes, “listening” is no longer about taking the other person’s point on board and building on it, but about acknowledging and moving on to what you already planned to do.

Improving Things Beyond Monetization

Not only is this a sad and joyless way to work, but the irony is that it doesn’t ultimately deliver. Narrow-minded and short-sighted thinking leads to inevitable accidents, catastrophes and disasters that cost fortunes to mop up and further damage morale. It has become okay to finger-point endlessly and claim the leak is on their side of the boat – without any awareness that we’re all sinking together for lack of trying.

The unexpected wake-up call of the modest perfection of the original Karate Kid movie was that we need to move beyond defending this or that method of work and look to highlight opportunities of improving things beyond monetization. Improving balance. Improving thinking and seeking smarter solutions. Improving connections. Improving attitudes. Improving skills. Improving inner beauty. None of these are about making a little more or a little less money at month end – but they are about enhancing our lives, and through our connections to each other, our society as a whole. We know how to grow flowers and raise kids, and build companies. We need to remind ourselves these are valid purposes in themselves, by themselves, for themselves. Wax on, wax off, breathe in, breathe out.

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Renee P September 25, 2020

I loved Karate Kid as a young girl. I'm new to Lean in the manufacturing milieu but it turns out I have lived the principles, unconsciously, for my entire life, because I was raised to do so by my parents and the schools they sent me to. I'm trying to turn the titanic of the factory I work for by emphasizing the development of our people, who are the ones behind the monetization that is the only concern of ownership, FOR THEIR OWN SAKE. Because human beings deserve to know from experience that they are loved, needed, valued, and appreciated BECAUSE THEY EXIST, not because of what can be derived from their labor. Your post is fabulous. I especially like that you call out the election and promotion of bullies to leadership positions worldwide. I hope never to have "enough" money or be forced into a position of unchecked power, as these two things seem to cripple the humanity in human beings unfortunate enough to lay claim to either or both. In turn, I celebrate your writing, your thoughtfulness, your championing of REAL influence/power that prioritizes the tried and true values of Lean by developing relationships that matter, that elevate. I'm convinced that most of the problems in manufacturing, indeed, perhaps, in the world, could be resolved by taking the time to listen and care for those within our sphere, on a continuous basis, in a genuine manner. My two cents.

Bravo, sir. I'm glad you exist and aren't afraid of the truth.

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michael Ballé September 25, 2020
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Thank you Renée, for your very touching response! These are change times indeed, and times to remind ourselves of what counts - to stand and be counted! 

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Ricky Mankavech September 30, 2020

I found it very interesting how you were able to identify lean values in the Karate Kid. As a Karate Kid fan and a senior supply chain student, I love how you were able to find connections between the movie and lean. I agree that corporations need to focus on improving the connections and skills of everyone to create a better company. This post helped me to realize I can find values of lean in things I never would have thought of before! Thanks.

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michael Ballé September 30, 2020

Thank you for your comment - to be honest, I was first thinking about the nostalgia of the original pic, compared with the TV show. I found it interesting how Daniel remembers the idea of "balance" but not what living it means - his wife is there to remind him.

So much of lean is like that - people are familiar with the concept, bandy it about, but misinterpret in the bones - I know I do.

I also found it interesting that Johnny started parotting the "no mercy" creed, and then learned to see through it - again, the scriptwriters were smart: the concept looks simple, the living it is nuanced and chaotic.

Starting from balance I realized many other values are represented in the film - I was suprised by the inner, hidden beauty one, but once I saw it, it permeates the film and I think makes for a lot of its appeal.

It seems like things have drifted to a place where it's all communication and surface thinking. It was fun to see that good stuff - no one can claim The Karate Kid is a great movie - but it certainly is a good one, rests on deeper, righter stuff :^)))

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Michael Ballé September 30, 2020

The one thing that is clear in Cobra Kai and not in the original flick is the perspectives on feuds, and how each side is so self-righteous, while fueling the feud - the "they suck" boundary. It's so clever  how the script plays with Daniel/Johnny always being at the brink of reconciliation, and then going for another round - makes me laugh everytime the scenario does that :^D Sounds very familiar!

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Chris Ohsberg September 30, 2020

Hello Michael.

I am new to lean, however, I very much enjoyed your analysis and comparison of the values displayed in the Karate Kid and the lost values of lean. I agree with you when you say things need to be improved beyond monetization, and that balance, customer relationships, and honing/acquiring new skills are crucial to a company's success in this day and age. When monetization is the overwhelming core value of a company it can take away from the charm of that company, and can make it much less enjoyable for the people it employs, services, and deals with. It is much harder to build strong, positive, and lasting connections when practicing business this way. It can also lead to serious performance downfalls in the long run due to its predominitely short-termed point of view. 

Great post.

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Stefan Diarbi October 06, 2020

I really like this article's comparison to the original Karate Kid movie. I haven't watched the new Netflix series but am definitely interested now. It's very interesting to see the lean lessons displayed in the film. Working beyond monetization is intriguing. Like you said, we can do this by improving on all sides, rather than religiously following old methods of work. We can see an overall improvement in ourselves, much like the Karate Kid. Practice simple movements in Karate to better improve his overall performance in the duel. 

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