Several years back, LEI CEO John Shook discussed the need to explore the “frontiers and fundamentals” of lean—an approach that would simultaneously teach the basics of tools and methods of daily improvement tactics while pursuing a higher-level inquiry into matters of broader, more organizational nature.
Three recent books reveal surprising and satisfying ways that these new boundaries are emerging: we see how lean applies to the daily life of a one-acre farm, how the spirit of lean can be used to improve personal and professional leadership, and how lean writ large presents intriguing (albeit…complex) ways to tackle some of the largest and most “wicked” global problems.
The most, ahem, grounded of the three books is The Lean Farm: How to Minimize Waste, Increase Efficiency, and Maximize Value and Profits with Less Work by Ben Hartman. Recently awarded the Shingo Research award, this terrific book plants the seeds of lean, as it were, in the daily operations of a small vegetable farm in Northern Indiana.
After a customer suggested that lean could reap enduring benefits, Hartman explored whether a system that he saw as applying to manufacturing be responsive to the organic, unpredictable challenges of growing living things. When convinced that the goal was to improve processes as a way to provide more resiliency, boost output, and be more aligned with the core values of the farm, he and his team launched their lean work.
Hartman's success at Clay Bottom Farm is getting recognized as a great example of how lean can thrive in a setting that might surprise some. Jim Womack was inspired to visit the farm and share details in his yokaten column, while this excellent Civil Eats article expands on the ways that farming—and other industries—can learn from lean.
Womack highlights many of the benefits realized from Hartman’s lean work: “They have pioneered "market-ready harvesting" to minimize the touches between field and customer, right-sized tools with quick changeovers to minimize the amount and cost of equipment needed, "seed kanban" to always have the planting material needed without tying up cash in just-in-case inventories, "plot kanban" to know immediately when a plot of land is ready for a new crop and exactly what crop to plant, quick changeovers of plots so the new crop goes in the same day the old crop comes out, and heijunka scheduling to spread the work of the farm evenly over a 12-month growing season to eliminate idle (wasted) assets and to prevent the seasonal mura and muri of the traditional farm as well.”
Long-time lean readers will find the new examples of lean practice a refreshing read. For example, the authors are able to replace the by-now apocryphal oil pump 5 why example with their own tales of using this process of discovery to tackle problems such as low yields of mesclun mix and excessive time to weed tomatoes in the winter greenhouse. The book's illustrations of the farm's visual systems, including a kamishibai board, are worth the price of admission alone.
I love The Lean Farm for its clarity, power, and sense of purpose. There’s nothing more universally instructive than a perfectly told personal account of discovery. This story of learning through trial-and-error, wrapped up with a myriad of useful lessons and wise business decisions, will provide all lean thinkers with applicable insights.
One personal dispute: I disagree with Hartman’s argument that there is a fundamental difference between factories and farms, between manufacturing and agriculture. He considers farming to be “more like that of a horse trainer than a mechanic, more like a healer than a computer repairperson,” and argues that the attending mystery to this work creates a clean distinction from those who make things from other things. I don’t make such a fine distinction between Farm and Machine in even the most industrial of work settings; there’s always a human element, an organic set of factors that conspire to create new challenges, and a baseline of human endeavor that injects a sense of nature (uncontrollable and capricious) into every work setting.
If The Lean Farm represents lean at the altitude of zero feet, then Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future, by the late David Fleming, (edited in a new edition by Shaun Chamberlin), can be seen as a high-level (think 50,000 feet), important new addition to the lean body of literature. (Both books, by the way, are beautifully produced by Chelsea Green Publishing.)
The book calls itself “a community of essay-entries about inventive, cooperative, self-reliance,” and is an elegant, sprawling, 600-page tome collecting an a-z set of linked pieces of writing (ranging from Abstraction to Yonder). Think of it as a mashup of The Timeless Way of Being, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, The Whole Earth Catalog, and the writings of Taiichi Ohno. I have not read it in its entirety—and doubt many others will manage to do so. In terms of accessibility, this makes The Fifth Discipline read like Goodnight Moon. This however is not meant to be snarky (despite all evidence to the contrary!); but rather to warn readers about the daunting work of reading this, while urging you to indeed take the plunge.
I don’t have the space to share more of these rich ideas, but please take my word that this huge resource is a gem, and deserves the type of rabid fans who cherish the books of someone like Christopher Alexander (among them the software developers who have lovingly appropriated his ideas of a “pattern language”—something also applicable by the way to lean thinking). It’s a beautiful application of lean practices to big ideas. To take one illustration, Fleming defines Holons as “a part, or subsystem, or subassembly, of a system. Every system consists of holons.” He then goes on to show how Alexander considers a “distributed, holonic structure as a basic principle of fundamental design.” This brief passage, like so many in the book, makes surprising connections between simple lean and complex topics. Why holons? Think of them by another lean term: model lines.
A good starting point for readers would be the essay on Lean Thinking itself—which shares its definition as “a frame of reference for enabling people to join together in a shared aim,” and then expands on the political and organization implications of lean’s approach—providing people with the resources, skills and equipment, common purpose, and the freedom to apply their judgement. Another great quote: “The lean approach is not about apple-pie-sensible practices. It is about listening acutely to what a system needs and responding accurately.”
And yet to pick out pieces of this great fabric of thought truly does a disservice to Lean Logic. I highly recommend this book, which tees up lean thinking as a systemic countermeasure to some of the most pressing problems that we all face today—and which will in all likelihood worsen in the near future. It’s a vital resource for people curious in the many different frontiers of lean.
Finally, props to Kevin Meyer’s charming, inspiring, and thoughtful The Simple Leader: Personal and Professional Leadership at the Nexus of Lean and Zen. This book distills the key ideas of lean and the corresponding principles of Zen as a way to codify a set of concepts that can help you become more organized and effective; and at a deeper level to be more mindful, and better able to live on purpose. Drawing from personal practice in both fields, Kevin points out how both ways of thinking incorporate the concept of awareness through observation, cherish simplicity, seek harmony through flow, and are based on a notion of balance. His thoughtful recommendations about ways to adapt lean practices in your daily life will help anyone be more present, aware, thoughtful, and guided by a sense of purpose. There are many excellent books that identify ways to blend the good habits of lean with useful personal practices beyond work. This book deserves special notice. The Simple Leader recognizes the the deep joy that can be realized through diligent, disciplined, and humble lean practice. Such an appreciation can be valued at both the frontiers and the fundamentals of lean.