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Why do the characters in your books struggle a lot with lean?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I’m new to lean and I’ve just finished reading The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager and enjoyed them thoroughly – thank you. I do have a question: the characters seem to struggle a lot, and there’s a lot of conflict. Is that always the case or is it in there to make the books more interesting?

Thank you for this question, it has really given me pause. I’ve thought about it and, agreed, no two lean journeys are the same. Some are so conflict prone that people give up; others are fairly smooth and good fun. What Freddy and I try to capture with the business novel form is not just a manual for doing lean (although, most certainly the books are that) but also the “feel” of doing lean. We believe this important inasmuch as learning and understanding are two different things. The deep learning question is should you be content to change your understanding, and in this case a manual is exactly what you need, or should you aim to change your behavior and in which case other dimensions, such as the political context and the personal fallout need to be looked into.

How does learning lean feel? From my background as a cognitive sociologist and years coaching executives on the Gemba, I’ve cobbled together a four-step model (I had big words in mind, but I like your notion of “struggle”, so let me try my hand at a 4-S modelJ): Situation, Search, Struggle, Satisfaction.

  1. Situation: learning doesn’t start in a vacuum, but someone in a given situation feels compelled by either necessity or personal interest to seek to change this situation. In many cases, we’re quite satisfied with the status quo, so the situation can be pretty dire. Also, not every one will see the need for change in the same way, so context really matters. Are we facing a type-I problem in which it’s a matter of applying better a known solution, or are we in a type-II case of an adaptive problem in which we need to seek an altogether new approach?
  2. Search: once motivated (literally, put into movement), the person will then enter a search phases of inquisitiveness, (limited) curiosity, and looking for a fit-to-situation answer. This is usually rather fun and interesting because we all love exploring new stuff and changing our understanding – it’s changing behavior we find painful. So there definitely is a think… think… think… phase until one path of action becomes clear and…
  3. Struggle: the person then enters the struggle phase. As soon as action is involved, obstacles will appear, and many of those seem quite insurmountable. Conflict comes from the fact that some of these obstacles will be people (and not always the ones you think). Basically the change is smooth until someone gets in the way and then, bang, conflict – so yes, conflict is pretty typical of change. The deep question at the struggle phase is whether the person commits to persevere no matter what, or gives up and looks for a new interest somewhere else.
  4. Satisfaction: there is a deep and lasting satisfaction at mastering something new. Humans are profoundly tool users, and handling the correct gesture, mastering a new set of skills with a new tool is deeply satisfying, as is the feeling of getting results from having overcome the obstacles and pulled through. Deserved success makes you feel really good about yourself.

Real Lean vs. Fake Lean

The odd thing about lean is that as an overall approach it tends to keep you in the struggle phase more than any other learning method. The moment you set up a pull system with an andon, problems keep coming and keep coming – of all sorts. Some problems are of getting new people on board with countermeasures we’ve experimented elsewhere and some problems are simply new. Actually, a good sign that lean is working is that you keep uncovering problems you didn’t know you had. The self-reflective element of a lean culture is a large part of what makes it work over the long term, and a sure way to distinguish “real lean” from “fake lean.” But, consequently, you’d better get use to the feeling of struggle if you want to do lean for real.

The struggle part comes essentially in two forms: feeling stumped or conflict. Feeling stumped feels like being a prehistoric ape watching a wheel turning and thinking “it turns, but how?” In many cases the lean tools lead us to understand a problem much better but still see no practical way to solve it. This is a specific feeling of hitting one’s head against a brick wall, and takes some getting used to. When it happens to me (which is frequently), I take it as a good sign because it means the problem is real. At that stage, take easy, focus on special cases and try small stuff. As Daniel Kahneman pointed out success is largely a matter of talent and luck. The way to be lucky is to try many different countermeasures, hope that you were talented enough to try smart ones in the process (you never know which) and wait for something to unknot itself. It usually does.

Feeling stumped is something of an acquired taste, and hard to share with others. One of the difficulties of real lean is sharing this tendency to pick at problems with others who seek quick solutions to be able to move on. They can easily find you annoying for picking a wounds rather than just shutting up and getting on with… the situation as its always been. So the first cause of tension is to establish that feeling stumped is a normal feeling, and although frustrating, not necessarily a negative one. Feeling stumped also means fail fast, fail early: creating an environment where you can fail at solving the problem until something unravels and a solution emerges. It takes a special kind of patience, and persistence to try and see, try and see.

Real Change

Which brings us to conflict. Change, real change, often requires a sacrifice. In order to do adapt, you typically will have to abandon a practice that has worked well for you until now. A clear way of seeing this is when you get promoted. Ever step up the ladder increases the political dimension and say you’ve been promoted for your ability to get things done, suddenly the success skill is striking deals with allies and enemies – radically different. Chances are what made you good at getting things done, being a straight shooter and energizing people will make you a liability at the next level up. And so on. Lean change does bring that kind of change, often, when you need to abandon a deeply held belief to progress. Indeed, the first twenty pages of Taiichi Ohno’s first workplace book are about accepting that about half of what you think is false and the need to root out these “misconceptions” as well as admitting them to others. He knew what he was on about, and yes, this is a real struggle. We have to learn to be comfortable with “I was wrong, I’ve changed my mind.”

Worse, the sacrifice might be asked of others, to whom it can be intolerable. Several of the executives I’ve worked with on the Gemba already had a lean program in place with a lean guy doing lean stuff. They sought me out because they weren’t satisfied with it. Whatever the local lean guy was doing was perfectly adapted to the results they were getting, which his CO wasn’t satisfied with. So the lean guy will, unavoidably, have to change his practice. I can think of a couple of cases where we got lucky and the lean officer was really keen to learn and change. But I often come across lean guys who want to hang on to their practice and are unwilling to sacrifice what they know of lean (as in, there is more to lean than VSM, for instance). Next, it gets worse. As you start implementing the pull system, you logistics director will realize his or her practice is about to change radically and many of their reflexes are anti-lean. An on it goes. The quality director doing an excellent job at auditing and maintaining the various accreditations the company has is not likely to be the most adapted to an andon system where we need to react to every operator doubt within a work cycle. You get the picture.

Yes, struggle is inherently part of doing lean, and you need to get comfortable (or not too uncomfortable) with the feeling. If, right now, you’re not feeling stumped, feeling that you have to sacrifice a practice or belief, or have not realized you’re unwittingly asking such a sacrifice from someone else, you’re probably not doing lean in earnest. And this is definitely a feeling Freddy and I have brought to the novels. The gun-to-your-head feeling of needing to change, the frustrating feeling of trying to change and not getting it, and the conflict of coming across people for whom the change involved is (understandably, not blame involved) simply too much to ask.

What about satisfaction? Well, all the people I know who’ve discovered real lean (which usually means sticking to it beyond the first couple of years) don’t look back, and don’t relent. The satisfaction is rarely on the spot (because we’re usually in some form of struggle or other) but it feels great to see results improve, to feel the camaraderie of working as a team and more than anything else, to see people blossom and grow.

Lean is not mechanistic, but neither is it craftsmanship. If anything, lean is organic. We watch a pull system grow from a sapling (pulling the first high-runner) to a mighty tree that encompasses the whole plant. We watch people grow as they learn first to take on the challenges imposed on them by the method and then discover their own challenges and develop self-reflexiveness as we give them space to think. We watch companies grow by growing both customers’ and staff’s satisfaction, and to be honest, this feels great. And after a while, we get a real kick of discovering yet another layer of problems on the Gemba – it’s like an adventure at work, every day.

The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager, as well as the next installment in the series, Lead With Respect were written by Freddy and I to share the experience of learning on the Gemba with a sensei, with people doing lean who haven’t had the luck of coming across the old time Toyota senseis. The conflict and struggle in the books is not made up (if anything, it’s toned down). Lean learning is learning from solving real world problems. Change is not easy as the A of the PDCA leads you to Adopt new practices and Abandon old ones (Adopt is much easier than Abandon). Our intent in writing the books is to share experience of learning to change behavior, not simply understanding, and we hope we succeed in conveying this – struggle included.

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