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A Simple Question Without An Easy Answer

by Steve Bell
June 6, 2014

A Simple Question Without An Easy Answer

by Steve Bell
June 6, 2014 | Comments (10)

When is the last time someone asked you the simple question: “What is Lean?”

It happens to me quite often, and I’m surprised by how difficult I find it is to answer in a simple way. Why is that, I wonder? 

I believe one reason is that our individual understanding of Lean practice evolves with experience. This brings to mind “Shu-Ha-Ri”, a Japanese martial arts concept, which describes how one attains degrees of mastery.

“Shu” (learn) is the beginner state, where one is instructed through strict adherence to traditional form, intensely practicing basic forms until they are deeply internalized. Consider martial arts (where the forms are called “kata”) or similarly, the repetitive practice of fundamentals to learn a musical instrument, a sport such as tennis or golf, or a new language.

Once an individual internalizes the basic forms as habit, they progress to the “Ha” (detach) state where they are able to put these individual techniques together into meaningful patterns to achieve a goal, such as to play a piece of music with technical proficiency. Over time, and with continued practice, the individual relies less on the strict fundamentals, developing their own particular style through experimentation and innovation, guided by a master. An example of this would be to perform a musical composition with technical mastery as well as emotion. At this stage, the student is often asked to teach others who are in the Shu state, and by doing so they deeply internalize their own learning (learn it, do it, teach it).

Finally there is mastery, the “Ri” (transcend) state. At this stage, our musician becomes a composer. Here the practices are so deeply intuitive that they can be performed in a natural, fluid way. Actions flow from a deep state of understanding, where everything is done in a way guided by mindfulness of the situation rather than according to a prescribed set of rules. Of course the master frequently returns to the fundamentals, gaining new insights each time.

Thus, at each stage of mastery, an individual is likely to respond to the simple question “What is Lean?” in a fundamentally different way. The novice may focus on the form (tools and techniques) or if they attempt to address the question in a more holistic fashion, it may be a shallow interpretation not yet founded upon their own deeper experience.

The master, on the other hand, may simply respond to the question by posing a thoughtful and provocative question in return, helping the questioner to find deeper meaning and relevance from their own perspective and experience.

So how will you respond, the next time someone asks you this “simple” question? 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  learning,  musings
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Emmanuel Jallas June 06, 2014
An efficient way of helping people to develop themselves while they design and run a profitable business

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Erik Lindborg June 06, 2014
One of my favorite articles yet, Steve. Thanks!

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Ken Hunt June 06, 2014

One of the most valuable lessons that I have learned from my Shingijutsu Senseis is to do exactly what your next to last paragraph illustrates. Sometimes people lose sight of Kaizen not only being about doing things better, but also about learning. "Answering a question with a question" is an excellent way to help someone learn.

Well done Steve. Thank you!

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Ruth Archer June 06, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
This is a timely topic for me. I've just started working on an elevator pitch about Lean for people who don't know what it is. I was inspired yesterday after I listened to Simon Senik's Ted Talk on inspiration. which I learned about from the recent Lean Post titled Three Steps Toward Lean Culture Change by Erin Urban. 

I want my pitch to start with the Why. Perhaps something like:  Everyone of us has the ability and desire to improve our environment. Lean is a culture that empowers employees to do that.

Any thoughts on this?

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Lory Moniz June 06, 2014
Ruth that is a great start. I would add something like also gives them the problem solving skills to do so.

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Vitezslav Pilmaier June 06, 2014
Very good article - aside of the part who is answering is also important who is asking. For instance in my case I would give a totally different answer to a shopfloor member or a manager. But the "Shu-Ha-Ri" development is a very good point - to a same person I would give a completelly different answer 5 years ago than today.

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Ken Hunt June 06, 2014

Why give different answers? The facts are the facts, and the truth is just that. Your answers should be consistent no matter who you are talking to, otherwise which message is the right one?


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Vitezslav Pilmaier June 09, 2014
What I mean is, that you might give different answer to the same question when your are a pupil (shu), advanced student (ha) or near-to-be master (ri). It is like with the question "can you improvize ?" answers might be something line shu: "what is improvisation ?", ha: "absolutelly not", ri: "always when needed" :o)

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Heidi Heider June 09, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this reply
Facts may be set in stone but truth is very fluid. One truth can be communicated in a million ways. You explain or describe the same thing differently to a 6 year old than you do an adult. You also explain things differently to someone whose English is not very good. If you are talking about something highly technical, you explain it differently to an advanced engineer than to a non-technical person, etc. We usually tailor our message to our audience, whether we know it or not. The greatest teachers learn to speak the language of their pupils, or at least a language their pupils can comprehend. Communication should always be a two-way street, otherwise it becomes preaching, in the worst sense of that term, not the most inspired. Inspired preaching relates directly to the soul of the audience; whereas boring preaching is pretty much oblivious to the audience. ;-)

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Steve Bell June 09, 2014
2 People AGREE with this reply
This is a fascinating discussion.  I an early draft of the Post I had included these additional paragraphs:

First of all, there’s no single right answer to this question. From the point of view of the person asking the question, it’s important to appreciate their context. If we don’t understand their concerns, their frame of reference, then we might provide a completely accurate answer that is meaningless and useless to them.  Worse yet, we might provide them with a response that causes them to think that Lean principles aren’t of value to them.

Understandably, Lean principles and practices are often described in manufacturing terms. But if the person asking the question is in finance, human resources, or marketing, manufacturing examples can be harmful. For example, I generally work with IT professionals, helping to improve the value that information technology brings to the overall Lean enterprise and its customers. I try to respond to this question using examples that address their very specific concerns – product development, reliability, responsiveness, complexity, risk, quality, security, innovation, and so forth.

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