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Gather the Facts: How Does Your Organization View Lean?

by Eric Ethington
January 23, 2015

Gather the Facts: How Does Your Organization View Lean?

by Eric Ethington
January 23, 2015 | Comments (7)


A four letter word. Rhymes with mean. When used in a sentence, it creates visions of hardship, such as getting by with less. Lean and mean. Leaning out the workforce. Doing more with less. Yet in my experience, none of these things accurately describe what lean thinking is really about. So why do they so quickly come to mind?

In 1997, our entire salaried organization participated in diversity training led by Wayne and Cynthia Shabaz. Wayne said something during the training that has stuck with me ever since: "Perceptions may not be accurate, but they are real and must be dealt with." (Wayne, if you are out there, I was listening!). This truism can be applied broadly, but I share it here because I think it’s important in light of how lean is being applied or not being applied in organizations today.

If perceptions (about anything, lean thinking or anything else) are real – then, to use lean language, that’s part of the current state we’re dealing with. Our current state inevitably affects our ability to create a new ideal future state. So it’s worth gathering the facts, getting a real assessment about how Lean is viewed in your organization, in the minds and hearts of the people in your organization.

It’s worth asking, what's your organization's REAL, honest perception of Lean? If you could be a fly on the wall throughout the gemba, what would you hear? Would you hear words and phrases like engagement, problem solving, learning, "making my job better than now", and "empowered to bring forth ideas"? Remember, we are talking about conversations at the gemba, the actual place of work where value is being created, not the few people who are participating in a kaizen event now or have participated in one in the past… not the people participating in a leadership meeting, but the masses, the people you’ve yet to work with yet who you’re looking to engage.

Once you’ve gathered this information (it might require some research and talking to people), try an interesting thought experiment. Take one of those perceptions and break it down using the Why process. I would suggest a tree format similar to the one in the book Managing to Learn. Once you arrive the likely root cause(s), do something about it. Let me know what you find.


The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  leadership,  mindfulness,  musings
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7 Comments | Post a Comment
Jacob Stoller January 23, 2015
3 People AGREE with this comment

Thank you for this thoughtful post, Eric. As a journalist and author who writes about lean, I tend to look at how lean is understood by the world at large. I rarely find anybody outside of the lean community whose definition aligns with, say, LEI’s. So I would say that there is considerable variability in what the vocabulary means to different people. There’s probably a greater need for the kind of process you’re describing than most people realize.

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Eric Ethington January 26, 2015

Jacob - thanks for the comment.  I really think there is much more to be explored on this topic.  Part of the issue is basic learning.  Just as our understanding of math, and what it can do, morphs as we learn, I think the same thing should be expected of learn.  Part of it is misinformation and part is bad experiences (fueled by misinformation?).  And I am sure there are other dimensions too, hence the suggestion of a true root cause analysis.

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Mark Graban January 27, 2015

There's so much misunderstanding around the word "Lean." I sometimes wish the term "Effective Manufacturing" had been coined or even "Happy Manufacturing" instead of "Lean Manufacturing," but oh well.

I recently heard somebody ask at a patient safety conference, somebody who doesn't know Lean, "What happens when you get 'too Lean' and you start cutting corners on safety?"

They are clearly asking "what happens when you reduce staffing too much..." but that's not what Lean's about, of course.

But, the danged word implies it.

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Matthew Spielman January 29, 2015


I know it's not the point of the article, but thanks for the memories of Wayne and Cynthia's class.  Nothing says fun like "mandatory corporate diversity training."  But that class was anything but dry:  fun, eye-opening, and memorable.  And, it seems, not just for me.

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Eric Ethington January 29, 2015


Yes, to this day it was one of the best classes I have experienced - and I went in with the same preconceived notions too.

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Thomas February 12, 2015

Your comments are vey accurate. I came along this white paper a while back. You Know if you are a continuous improvement company if.....  It outlined some interesting principles around the same issues... less on the people side but aligned with what you are saying below....


Re: http://thehaldenzimmermann.com/continuousimprovementcompanies/

Nice concepts!

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Larry Navarre February 26, 2015


Another insightful post.  Thank you for the contribution.  Imagine my situation of advancing the cause of Lean in a university.  "Lean University" just doesn't conjure up thoughts of inspiration.  Dropping Japanese words in conversation to colleagues is not helpful (unless they are Japanese!).  I was guided by the comment of Jim Womack at LPPDE last September, (paraphrasing) "The language to use, is the language that works for you".  My current euphemism is "university of excellence".  ;)

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