This is the first of two articles exploring why and how to use the five principles of lean thinking to address systemic racism.
What should a Lean Thinker do about systemic racism? Corporate leaders are grappling with this question, too. Many seem to think the answer is to do more implicit bias training, diversity workshops, and only the most elementary aspects of the lean value, Respect for People. Systemic racism, a form of waste that has persevered for over 400 years in America, will require more than training and modeling the right behavior.
Instead of only firefighting individual workplace incidents of prejudice against or hostility toward people of color, we need to examine the big picture and focus on the system, or in lean vernacular, the Value Stream, to drive long-term transformation of the entire enterprise.
Be clear, systemic racism, or what Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, more aptly defines as racist policies, causes racial prejudice, discrimination, and Disrespect for People, not the other way around. Instead of only firefighting individual workplace incidents of prejudice against or hostility toward people of color, we need to examine the big picture and focus on the system, or in lean vernacular, the Value Stream, to drive long-term transformation of the entire enterprise. In other words, rather than trying to change the behavior of some people to fit the organization, we must focus on transforming our organizations to fit all people. To do this and create new anti-racist organizations, leaders need to fully embrace the five principles of lean: value vs. waste, value stream, flow, pull, and perfection.
Grasping the Current Situation
Before discussing these principles, let’s reflect on history to help us grasp the current situation. When doing so, an eerie feeling of déjà vu washes over me. I am reminded of Rodney King. Like so many are doing today, he also called for us to show respect for people and pleaded, “Can’t we just get along?” In 1991, America found itself in an all too familiar place of racial unrest triggered by police brutality. Then, instead of George Floyd, it was Rodney King, another unarmed Black man who regrettably became the poster child for systemic racism in America. Like the Floyd incident, this racist act was also captured on video (on a camcorder rather than a cell phone) by an eyewitness and televised for all to see. Rather than seeing a white police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he died, we watched Rodney King be brutally beaten by four white Los Angeles police officers who tasered, kicked, and clubbed him some 56 times in 81 seconds.
I was outraged, but as a freshman at Fayetteville State University (HBCU) at the time, I had no idea what I could do to make a difference. I thought the court would surely find these police officers guilty based on their inhumane treatment of a fellow human being and a gross lack of respect for people. So, I waited. Over one year passed, then came the verdict. Three police officers were acquitted, and the jury failed to reach a verdict on one charge for the fourth. Some people responded with protests. Others rioted to express their rage. I swallowed my feelings of despair regarding racism in America, remained on the sidelines of social justice, and continued my collegiate studies—very unlike what a Lean Thinker should do when seeing a form of waste, especially one this egregious and that puts people’s lives at risk.
Almost three decades after the Rodney King case, here we find ourselves again. Apparently, the grotesque nature of Mr. King’s brutal beating was not enough to motivate many of us, including me, to elevate the waste of systemic racism to the top of our priority lists. In the meantime, other racial protests and riots erupted due to police killings of more unarmed Black men in 2001 in Cincinnati, Ohio (Timothy Thomas); 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri (Michael Brown); 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland (Freddie Gray); and this year in Minneapolis, Minnesota (George Floyd).
But this time feels different. I, along with many of you, feel compelled not to merely spectate from the sidelines, but instead, I must enter the arena, and do as John Lewis encouraged:
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year; it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in GOOD TROUBLE, necessary trouble.”
Police brutality is the tip of the iceberg. It represents a much larger problem. That is, systems that are supposed to serve (and protect) all Americans are producing disparate outcomes for Black people. Why? Consider your underlying assumptions. Is there something innately wrong with Black people? Are they inferior to or less than? Of course not! Racist policies and ideas are at the root of racial inequities. For example, in healthcare, while Blacks represent approximately 13% of the population, they suffer 23% of all Covid-19 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Further disparities can be seen in the following statistics cited by Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility (DiAngelo, 2018):
- The US Congress is 90% white,
- US governors are 96% white,
- top military advisers are 100% white,
- teachers are 82% white, and
- full-time professors are 84% white.
DiAngelo describes these racist systems as a network of norms and actions in our culture and institutions that consistently advantage whites and disadvantage people of color.
Systemic problems require what Shigeo Shingo (considered one of the architects of the Toyota Production System) calls systemic thinking. In other words, think about the whole system and the interactions and relationships within the system. This is the logic of a Lean Thinker.
Tomorrow, I'll address specifically how you can apply the five principles of lean thinking to eliminate the waste of racism.
- Jonathan Bundy, As Companies try to Address Racism, a Generic Response is No Longer Enough, Fast Company, August 3, 2020
- Mark Graban, Podcast #378 – Christopher D. Chapman and Valeria Sinclair-Chapman, PhD on Lean, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Mark Graban’s Lean Blog, July 31, 2020
- Alex Berezow, Coronavirus: Covid Deaths in US by Age, Race, American Council on Science and Health, June 23, 2020
- Laura Morgan Roberts, Ella F. Washington, US Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism, Harvard Business Review, June 1, 2020
- Pooja Jain-Link, Julia Taylor Kennedy, & Trudy Bourgeois, 5 Strategies for Creating an Inclusive Workplace, Harvard Business Review, January 13, 2020
- Time’s Up Guide to Equity and Inclusion During Crisis: Building an Anti-Racist Workplace, 2020 Time’s Up Foundation
- Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist, Penguin Random House LLC, 2019
- Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, Beacon Press, 2018
- Paul Gompers, Silpa Kovvali, The Other Diversity Dividend, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2018
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- Vivian Hunt, Dennis Layton, & Sara Prince, Why Diversity Matters, McKinsey & Company, January 1, 2015
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- Jeffrey K. Liker, The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer, McGraw-Hill, 2004
- David A. Thomas, Robin J. Ely, Making Differences Matter: A New Paradigm for Managing Diversity, Harvard Business Review, September-October 1996