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How Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Teaching Embodies Lean Thinking

by Christopher D. Chapman
February 23, 2021

How Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Teaching Embodies Lean Thinking

by Christopher D. Chapman
February 23, 2021 | Comments (4)

I was asked recently to define lean thinking in five words or less. I have defined the continuous improvement term countless times before, but never in so few words. It proved to be an interesting challenge, much like applying lean thinking to the definition itself, removing the unnecessary nonvalue-added verbiage to reveal the term’s true essence.  I began by writing a list of phrases I have commonly used to define lean thinking: 

  • waste elimination 
  • Toyota Production System 
  • team-based problem-solving 
  • value stream transformation 
  • workflow optimization 
  • process improvement 
  • scientific and systemic thinking 
  • delighting customers 
  • pursuit of perfection 
  • respect for people   

After a few rounds of paper kaizen, I boiled my definition down to these five words: Perfecting Process of Serving Customers.  

During Black History Month and after reading Where Do We Go from Here, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last book published in 1967 (a year before his assassination), I am reminded that these five words not only concisely define lean thinking; they also describe Dr. King’s legacy as a leader.  

Identifying and Serving the Customer 

Much can be learned from Dr. King about perfecting the process of serving customers. Lean thinking teaches you to always begin with the customer. I suspect Dr. King would agree that beginning with the needs of the people is the right starting place. Customers are the people we serve, or as Mark Friedman, author of Trying Hard Is Not Good Enough, stated, those whose lives are affected, for better or worse, by our actions.  

Mike Rother and John Shook, authors of Learning to See, wrote that whenever there is a customer, there is a value stream. The value stream is the step-by-step process, a series of actions, or the system we go through to serve our customers. Lean thinking aims to perfect that process. In other words, Lean Thinkers continually strive to eliminate the obstacles, barriers, and various types of wastes that impede the delivery of value to the customer.  

Value is typically thought of as products and services desired by the customer. From a humanitarian and respect-for-people perspective, I would argue that value also includes our inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Value is typically thought of as products and services desired by the customer. From a humanitarian and respect-for-people perspective, I would argue that value also includes our inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I imagine that Dr. King would add justice, equal opportunity, and love of one’s fellow human beingsall attributes of the beloved community King envisioned.

One task of leaders, according to Raj Sisodia and Michael J. Gelb, authors of The Healing Organization, is to create spaces that add value to a person’s life and well-being rather than places that detract value. In other words, when leaders expand not only who they see as their customers but also how they view the job of serving their customers, the outcome should enhance customers’ lives. When we see opportunities to expand our customer base by serving those whose needs have been overlooked, and then also see our service as providing a superior product and making people’s lives better, then we will have created organizations that heal in addition to making profits. 

Eliminating waste to better serve the customer is another goal of Lean Thinkers. Waste generally includes non-value-added activities such as transportation, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, processing, and defects. However, in the wake of the George Floyd killing and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, anti-racist Lean Thinkers have added systemic racism to the list of wastes to eradicate in our efforts to better serve customers, especially those who are marginalized and discriminated against. Dr. King dedicated his life to serving this group of customers. He lamented, No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for the least of these.”  

Dr. King is perhaps best known as the primary leader and spokesperson of the Montgomery Bus Boycott made famous when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in the capital city of Alabama in 1955, the year after the passage of the Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional in the famed Brown v Board decision (1954). King was also Baptist minister, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, organizer of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (1964), and orator of the famous I Have a Dream speech. I submit to you he was also a consummate Lean Thinker.  

What makes me draw this conclusion, you ask? His words and actions.  

First, let us read some passages from his iconic I Have a Dream speech. Notice how eloquently he describes the aspirational long-range vision of a beloved community where one day value will flow to all customers unimpeded by the waste of systemic racism:  

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. 

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” 

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. 

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. 

I have a dream today. 

Dr. King gave this speech -- what Lean Thinkers might consider a vision statement -- at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963.  Nearly six decades old, I Have a Dream still resonates with its customers, provides clear direction and priorities for today’s gemba, and challenges all of us to learn and grow together.  

Transforming the Current Process

With the clarity of our purpose that is to better serve our customers and a vision of what we want our beloved community to look like in the future, we are ready, next, to engage in the hard work of transforming our current process of serving customers. Successfully achieving the future-state vision by removing waste from and transforming the process of serving customers is ultimately determined by how well leaders organize, coach, train, and empower cross-functional kaizen teams to undertake this endeavor.  

Lean Thinkers familiar with the Japanese origin of the word kaizen, popularized by Toyota, know that it means more than just continuous improvement in work-life, but includes your personal, family, and social life too. Masaaki Imai, kaizen pioneer and founder of the Kaizen Institute, credits kaizen (the ongoing improvement involving everyone along the value stream, including top management, managers, and associates) as the key to Toyota’s success. Toyota used kaizen to rise from the ashes of World War II to surpass American automakers and become more profitable today than GM, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler combined earlier this century.  

Kaizen leadership skills are not exclusive to Japan. If you look closely, you will recognize kaizen undergirding the words and actions of Dr. King. Look at what King says in 1964 about Black protest organizers working with Northern white allies for the first time to combat racial injustice in Mississippi: “The answer was only to be found in persistent trying, perpetual experimentation, persevering togetherness, he writes (King, 1967).  

Dr. King’s approach mirrors the Plan-Do-Check-Act aspect of kaizen and its experimental nature. He goes on to note, “When a new dawn reveals a landscape dotted with obstacles, the time has come for sober reflection, for assessment of our methods and for anticipating pitfalls. Stumbling and groping through the wilderness finally must be replaced by planned, organized and orderly march. They can then embark on social experimentation with their own strengths to generate the kind of power that shapes basic decisions. Like all good Lean Thinkers (and Doers), King followed-up his aspirational words with transformational actions by: 

  • Training local communities in the philosophy of nonviolence by conducting leadership training programs and opening citizenship schools 
  • Registering disenfranchised voters  
  • Establishing voter education clinics 
  • Joining local movements to coordinate mass protest campaign and voter registration drives all over the South 
  • Bringing visibility to the civil rights struggle that laid the groundwork for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 
  • Beginning Operation Breadbasket in Atlanta to create new jobs in the Black community 
  • Launching the Poor People’s Campaign to push federal legislation that would guarantee employment, income, and housing for economically marginalized people 

Dr. King approached civil rights leadership using the perspective of Sisodia and Gelb’s Healing Organizations, seeking to Encourage creative expressions of caring; tap into the infinite creativity that exists in your stakeholders to stimulate the discovery of more ways to reduce suffering and increase joy. 

Perfecting the Process

To perfect the process of serving customers means to eliminate all waste so that all activities along a value stream create value. The goal of a lean approach to systemic racism is to aim for zero racist policies, zero racial discrimination, and zero racial inequity. Like striving to achieve zero defects or zero accidents, zero racism is never-ending work that leaders must commit to every day (Chapman, October 8, 2020). All parts of the value stream must be examined and “kaizened” over time to, in the words of Dr. King, “transform this worldwide neighborhood into a worldwide brotherhood.”  

According to Sisodia and Gelb, business is poised to play a critical role in reorienting the trajectory of our country and can drive the innovation to heal many of our greatest social, economic, environmental, and political challenges. For this to happen, business leaders would be wise to lead as Dr. King did: with compassion for the least of these. Reminiscent of the respect-for-people principle, Dr. King put it this way: “Our economy must become more person-centered than property- and profit-centered. Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved nation to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion to a more noble expression of humaneness.” 

Uniting Around Dr. King's Dream 

Keep in mind: we are all customers at some point in the process. You are either serving or being served. In the words of Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, there is no separate other; you and the someone else are part of a single system. It cannot be every man or woman for him or herself or their tribe.  

We would be wise to remember Dr. Kings leadership advice that, Self-concern without other-concern is like a tributary that has no outward flow to the ocean. Stagnant, still, and stale, it lacks both life and freshness. It is our time to create a new, more human, life-affirming beloved community Dr. King envisioned that serves us and provides value to all customers. 

Keywords:  leadership,  Purpose,  reflection,  respect,  social good
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4 Comments | Post a Comment
Sam Morgan February 23, 2021

Powerful thoughts Christopher. I love the idea of framing our CI work as "serving". This should help us see our customers not as an inconvenience but as human. 



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CHRISTOPHER D CHAPMAN February 24, 2021

Agreed. I am concerned that some along their lean journey have lost sight of their customer and may be eliminating wastes for self-serving reasons. They fail to realize their true purpose is to serve the customer. If they make it their business to continually remove all barriers, obstacles, delays, and wastes including racial discrimination that get in the way of serving the customer, then the customer will serve them in return by coming back for more. This is the CI work we are called to do—Perfecting Process of Serving Customers.



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James Curcio February 23, 2021

Loved reading this Christopher! "From a humanitarian and respect-for-people perspective, I would argue that value also includes our inalienble rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This really resonated with me. Often times we get carried away with how value should only be the result of product and services. Although many of us forget that we are human beings... Value for humans are much more than just products and services. We value life, we value liberty, and we value happiness. 



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CHRISTOPHER D. CHAPMAN February 24, 2021

I am glad it resonated with you. Yes, our customers are human beings too that in addition to receiving their products and services without delays and defects, they value life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness so these rights ought to be included in the value proposition. As I see it, our job as Lean thinkers/doers and responsible human beings is to help remove barriers, obstacles, and delays to that value flowing freely. Racial discrimination can be more disruptive, corrosive, and costly to value flowing than other forms of wastes. For that reason, it ought to be a top priority for value stream transformation.



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