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Expanding Our Perspective on Lean Management, Part 1: A Creative Ethic

by Joanna McGuffey & Thomas Richert
April 10, 2018

Expanding Our Perspective on Lean Management, Part 1: A Creative Ethic

by Joanna McGuffey & Thomas Richert
April 10, 2018 | Comments (4)

Problem-solving conversations are how lean practitioners identify, invent, and test improvements. One problem-solving conversation we had in the fall of 2016 looked at whether lean management was constrained by a deliberate analytical and rational way of thinking, and whether we were blinded to some new possibilities for understanding lean by focusing on it as a purely scientific discipline.

During this conversation, we formed an expectation that there are non-scientific perspectives worth considering, and that these new perspectives could contain clues leading to a wider and longer embracing of lean practices.  That expectation led us to seek a group who tend to think and work in a way that includes an intuitive, divergent perspective. We chose to first work with a group of artists, as we thought they would have the most divergent perspective. This choice complemented an observation from Tom’s work in the building industry, wherein architects as design professionals tend to be most resistant to lean practices.

We met for three days with a group of artists to learn through experiences, conversations, and reflection their perspectives on lean thinking and practices. Helping us in this effort were lean practitioners John Shook, Deb McGee, Karyn Ross, David Verble, Niklas Modig, Robert Martichenko, and Bryan Wahl. We anticipated that as most of the work investigating lean has been through scientific thinking that an artistic perspective would yield important insights that have been invisible to, or at least not very deeply explored by, students of lean.

We were rewarded with three insights that will help further the interest, acceptance, and endurance of lean practices within enterprises. The first is that lean is a creative ethic.

Art Is a Process too

There was a sense from the artists that lean as practiced was a mindset, and they could see qualities in lean that mirrored not simply an artistic mindset, but a creative ethic. We choose the word ethic because the artists clearly expressed a moral reverence for artistic work as contrasted with work in other spheres; whereas a mindset, whether directed toward process or results, does not carry that same moral conviction. In other words, an ethic is more of a way of life versus what one does at work.

Despite coming from what the artists labeled “the corporate world,” many of the lean concepts discussed felt familiar to the group. One very familiar aspect was the focus on continually improving the process or practice.

For many artists, the journey to the final performance or artifact is just as significant as the performance itself, sometimes more so. This is due to the deep emotional and cognitive connection most artists experience throughout the process of making art. What happens during the process endures, while the performance or finished piece is only a point in time. When the artist observes their art they not only see the final piece but also feel and know its roots and what it took to create it. They recall the journey, and often the emotions embodied in that journey.

Considering lean as a creative ethic is profound. This creative ethic begins with a single observation made from an experience. An emotional response typically accompanies what we are calling an experience, which is later translated into some form of art. The artist’s end product or piece would allow the viewer or listener to experience the same emotion the artist originally observed. This process incorporates a mindful awareness about how they, and others can emotionally connect to an idea through their work.

An emotional transfer of information is deeper and more complete than is possible through a strictly rational form of communication. The clearest example of this transfer is through music. Think of the impact the film score has on what the audience experiences during a movie. The dialogue and the character action provide for the rational information required to know the story, however, the music is required if the audience is to experience the story.

PDCA as a Creative Process

How might this need for an emotional transfer of information apply to a lean practice, such as plan-do-check-act (PDCA)? PDCA as a creative process is not a new idea - in a September 2013 post Karyn Ross introduced that idea, and being able to speak with Karyn helped the artists make this connection. Whereas many people focus on the Plan and Do parts of the PDCA cycle what we learned through speaking with the artists is that the creative mind places the emphasis on the third element of the cycle - Check. More than checking measurable results against expectations, the artist is observing the emotional impact of a work, and it is this observation that is the most important part of the creative cycle.

This creative approach requires developing awareness, mindfulness, and curiosity; which then leads to further exploration, and an attitude of never settling for good enough. If that sounds familiar it is because the artists understood lean as a creative ethic is a way of being. It’s continuous. It allows us to work and play in a way that benefits the person, the family, and the enterprise. The question the artist seeks to consider is where to stress the system; a tactic well practiced by Taiichi Ohno, who in his own way may also have been an artist.

In future posts, we will introduce two additional insights from the workshop. One is that lean has its roots in spirituality. The other is that lean is a practice in search of a language.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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Frank Castillo April 10, 2018
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Hi Joanna & Thomas, 

Thank you for sharing your experience & perspectives. Problem solving at the shop floor has always had an emotional attachment for me. Working with people to find the point of occurrence, developing & testing hypotheses, learning from each other's experiences & the high all those involved get from having solved the problem for the last time, make problem solving an artistic experience. We can’t help but create an engaging and rewarding environment when you enable those experiences to be more common in our daily work.

Thanks again,



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Andrew Bishop April 10, 2018

When we take step back to feel the passion and see the vision of so many of the people teaching and practicing lean it seems clear that this is a creative act.  Learning to see.  Trying to move the world from what we are to what we could be. 

It's brilliant to bring the people with "creative" on their name badges into the conversation for a deeper perspective.  I wish I could have listened in! 


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Ken Eakin April 17, 2018

Great article!

In my experience, creativity is both an asset and a liability in 2 key areas of lean:

1. PDCA problem solving is a creative and emotional process because it involves multiple decisions.  Despite common perception, people make decisions largely based on emotion, not facts and data (see the work of Kahneman and cognitive science in general).  Facts and data can (and should) inform better decisions, but there has to be an emotional component or there will be no commitment or follow-through.  So really good lean problem solvers are paradoxically required to be both highly analytical (to diagnose a problem) and highly creative (to imagine innovative solutions).  Finding these two mindsets in the same person is rare, so diverse, team-based problem solving with a facilitator who can wear both hats is most successful.

2. Profound lean transformation seems to be more about Flow Kaizen (design and redesign of value streams) than Process Kaizen (rational, incremental improvements to the intermediate steps).  Flow Kaizen is far more creative.  Unfortunately, smaller-scale, tool-based, process kaizen is easier to teach and transmit. Hence most companies perceive lean as both rational and cold, on the one hand, and of little impact on the other! Flow kaizen is creative and liberating, but creativity is often looked at suspiciously in business contexts.  Business culture generally suppresses creativity and bold, new ideas.

I highly encourage lean advocates and consultants to create "safe" environments where people (not just artists) can be more creative at work.  Front-line colleagues will especially amaze you every time with their creativity, if only you let them.

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Tim July 12, 2018

Agree completely. Focusing on flow releases people. Deming's 14 points discusses the safe space should be everywhere. Great post

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