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?