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Lean Writing Has a Gemba

by Tom Ehrenfeld
August 22, 2013

Lean Writing Has a Gemba

by Tom Ehrenfeld
August 22, 2013 | Comments (1)

I love these examples of terrific (lean) writing: 

Recruiting Creative Ideas, John Shook
Bad People or a Bad Process, Jim Womack
Are You Pulling, Michael Ballé

Having edited these pieces, I have developed some beliefs about what helps them succeed—and would like to share these reflections with the goal of helping you write better (and hopefully write for us at The Lean Post).

Here are three questions to consider when writing:

  • What are you talking about?
  • How you do know?
  • And perhaps most importantly, So What?

Whenever I read something as an editor, I look to see if the author has answered these questions. In fact, I tried to answer these three questions in the first paragraph of this piece. Beyond serving as basic guidelines for good, clear writing, these basic questions align with lean principles. They reinforce what I’ve learned working with authors, that the best lean thinking (and writing) always has a gemba.

Gemba, as in the place where the work, or call it action, happens. Just as lean improvement always starts with a close observation of the work at hand, good lean writing results when an authority draws from experience. Note the link between “author” and “authority”. Having done (or studied) lean work provides you with a basis to share what you’ve learned. This doesn’t mean you have to have worked for Toyota or be four degrees of separation from Taichi Ohno. You may have done academic work or have first-hand lean knowledge from another angle. But you must always have a gemba.

As editors, at LEI our job is to help you share this knowledge in the most effective (waste-free?) manner. We do so by being mindful of clarity and purpose. Good writing sets up an early promise, and then—this is crucial—delivers by having the author make their case with compelling material from the gemba. I find it fitting that the best writing I’ve encountered on lean for the past two decades starts at the gemba.

Some key lean practices apply to writing and editing. At LEI we try to be tough on paper, but soft on authors. It’s a loose parallel with a lean principle of being tough on processes and work, while respectful of individuals. We’ve worked with words for years and developed quality standards regarding good writing: it should be clear, concise, evocative, and hopefully, meaningful. And of course, to cite the late great Elmore Leonard, writers should "try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." 

So when we work with authors of every level of experience or background, we always start by carefully reading what is on the page. Any article that comes with an external explanation (instructions) by the author is insufficient. The piece should always speak for itself. We won't accept every article submitted to The Lean Post, but if we do accept your piece, we will work carefully and patiently with you on the execution of your article’s promise. Our job is to help you find the appropriate language and material to support your argument from start to finish.

That’s why good writing is a team sport. I think that most writers consider lean principles as applicable to writing as they do to any “creative” work, which is not at all. But the vast majority of great writing is in fact co-generated. Or at least helped by editorial support that in many ways embraces lean principles, whether authors call it that or not. This piece, for example, was aided immeasurably by the editing of Lex Schroeder, who has spent many hours with me discussing purpose and standards for Post pieces (including this one.) I love that manga artist Naoki Urasawa stresses the importance of having a tanto henshusha for his work — the writing equivalent of Toyota’s Chief Engineer.

Good editors are to good writers as good managers are to skilled line workers: individuals who patiently, carefully learn the work at hand over time. They are not smarter, but more experienced, and their job is to diligently worry the small details that help a piece connect with the reader. That’s also why while good readers are not always good writers, almost every good writer started by simply becoming a good reader. They seek to produce for other readers that same value they appreciate. And that’s why a good editor is mindful of purpose and diligent about effectiveness (no wasteful words or digressions) as a means of supporting the writer and adding value for readers... while recognizing that the gemba work is always the responsibility of that writer.

I hope these thoughts help you as a writer. All of us at LEI invite you to improve them through great writing on The Lean Post!

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  collaboration,  musings
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Michael Ballé September 01, 2013
3 People AGREE with this comment

For the record, Tom Ehrenfeld is the best editor I've worked with. Habing published fourteen books both in English and French, and having been the business books collection director for a French publisher for twenty years I have worked with many editors and Tom stands out in two important ways.

First, he truly sees the page as the gemba. As with any industrial process, a book usually has a tortured journey and the current page is the result of rewrites and negociations. Tom has the ability to distance himself from the history of changes (and the egos behind them) and see the page afresh and whether it works or not for the reader (OK from non-OK).

Secondly, Tom is a pleasure to work with as an author because he has a perfect balance of sticking to his guns (and I've been at the recieving end of it) whilst always engaging in dialogue and patience, (and authors egos set new standards for fragile). He also has the unique ability to reframe the perspective which has helped me many times to solve writing problems in ways I'd not seen before.

I can honestly say that the The Gold Mine, The Lean Manager and soon, fingers crossed, Lead With Respect are my best books, and a large part of that comes to Tom's skilfull touch. Working with him has made me a much better writer, and I'm truly grateful.

I believe Tom makes a deep point about lean thinking in this post, A point I've heard also from a TV producer who used lean thinking to turn a TV show from a loser to the top French sitcom: gemba and teamwork to improve quality and accelerate flows.

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