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Is there a spiritual dimension to lean?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Is there a spiritual dimension to lean?

Wow! I don’t know what to say… Is there a spiritual dimension to always striving to be better? Or just naked ambition? I have to admit this is a question I never envisaged.

Lean is definitely built on good intentions. The basis of the method is that lean thinking strives to help solve customer problems by engaging the talent and passion of people who believe there is always another way. Clearly, we can see a core dimension of seeking, striving (and overcoming the unavoidable struggles) as the very backbone of lean. If we investigate a bit more closely:

  1. Wanting to help customers succeed at what they’re doing and be happy with it – helping yourself by first helping others (or helping others which in turn helps yourself). This is definitely a variant on the golden rule, a dynamic version of “do as you would be done by” – is this “spiritual” or just neighborly, hard to tell.
  2. Seeking to discover one’s own misconceptions by empirical problem solving. A key scientific – but disturbing to many – facet of lean is that deeper understanding is achieved by progressively clearing the layers of misconceptions that cloud clear vision, much like Michelangelo claiming to seek the statue in the block of marble by chipping away the stone. This means that our initial ideas are tested empirically and, in fact, an experiment that shows no correlation between our hypothesis and its impact is actually good news because if we can discard a wrong belief, we are better positioned to look for new ones. It turns out this simple, pragmatic approach to scientific thinking goes against the grain of how human minds work, which is motivated thinking (first posit your conclusion and then look for the evidence) and is deeply disturbing to many who feel instinctively that some beliefs should not be challenged. There is an element of unending struggle for self-betterment here as the temptation to give in to our existing beliefs and dismiss challenging facts, whether from others or from experience, is ever present. Is this spiritual, again, hard to say, but it does have the hallmarks of a defining “great task” for oneself.
  3. Giving everyone a chance to grow to the full potential of their abilities (and challenging them to be their best). This other core tenet of lean is interesting because it aims at finding a balance between the individual good and the greater good. This is where lean is often accused of being too challenging or too cynical. On the one hand, you’re supposed to push people so they take the full space they can take so that they grow and contribute, and on the other you’re supposed to keep them in a realistic achievement zone so that they achieve success in relative comfort (a bit of struggle, but not overwhelmingly so). This, of course, is an almost impossible balance to strike, and one always gets it wrong in either yang (push to hard) or yin (yield too much). I suspect that this search for the yin-yang balance could be considered spiritual in Asian cultures, but we tend to like it simple, such as, on the one hand, Star Trek’s Mr. Spock sacrificing himself on the principle that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one,” or, on the others, rugged individualism. Tricky.
  4.  Acknowledging other’s difficulties and solving problems together across boundaries. If you want to go quick, go alone;  if you want to go far, go together, says an African proverb, and definitely “togetherness” infuses lean thinking through and through. Is this sort of dynamic communatarianism spiritual? Some would argue so.

Higher Forces?

On the whole, I’d have to say that, as John Shook, once told me, lean is not value-free – lean thinking is certainly based on solid core values of seeking the best for others and society and finding individual realization within that stretching effort. A large unsaid part of that is close to the values of athletes: by challenging yourself you also put pressure on your competitors, which both allows you to win and impose your pace on the field: your ideas, your values, your direction. Ethical, certainly. Spiritual, to some, maybe, in the sense of the spiritual life of the marathon runner.

In the lean literature, there are occasional reports of Sakichi Toyoda’s deep Buddhist beliefs, and indeed, he tended to express his vision in strong moral, not to say moralizing terms. Still, I doubt there is any transcendent vision in lean. The notion that lean thinking should liberate the superior plan of higher forces by our personal commitment to daily lean thinking, if it exists at all, is then deeply hidden and esoteric. I for one, have never encountered it.

The case for immanence, on the other hand, could be made. The idea that through practicing lean thinking every day something beyond banal is realized does seem to show up consistently. I remember vividly an old timer Japanese sensei telling me he needed three minutes to assess a plan: look, hear, smell – three minutes! This is a goal I personally still strive for and, yes, there is a mystery to it beyond checklists and tools.

For example, yesterday, thinking about this, I conducted the three-minute exercise with the CEO and COO of a company – just three minutes in silence watching, hearing, smelling, while observing a maintenance center. We’re good friends of many years and we could feel … something and discovered something new, also.  At the end of the three minutes, we could hear the difference between the regular sound of someone sweeping and the occasional loud clang -- smooth flow versus mura/muri. When we investigated, we saw a technician throwing heavy stuff into a van and clearly struggling with the equipment. It was an eye opener.

It is possible to think that by practicing lean on the gemba everyday one develops one’s spirit, and in this sense, lean would not quite be “spiritual,” but could be seen by some as a spiritual practice. Certainly, old time Toyota sensei regularly talk about the spirit of kaizen, of kaizen consciousness, and so it’s part of their vocabulary. But it would be a very limited, immanent spirituality where the principle is inscribed in the act itself, and the practice strives to grow this inner light. It probably works in Asian terms but I doubt it fits with Western spiritual notions of seeking to join with a higher being (or “Truth”) through prayer, practice, or submission.

Thank you for this very interesting question – I had simply never considered it. I fear my answer falls woefully short, but this has definitely stretched my mind. It has also made me face one of my own spiritual shortcomings and hardest struggle: to continue to see the potential in every person even when their circumstances makes them behave like jerks.

Let me clarify. In the tension between needing to move fast in order to turn around companies in desperate trouble and developing every person, I personally fall on the bias of the football coach: first select the best players, and then get them to play together. I will seek out early on the few who “get” the seeking a better way and ignore all those who resist or are simply not interested. This, however, is first not very nice, and also not very effective because seen from the other side, people are not reassured that whatever changes we want to make are going to happen with them and to their benefit.

The best kids swimming coach I know bases his pedagogic approach on the fear of water. I’m not so good with the fear of change, but have done this long enough to know better. Thankfully, I only teach and the leaders I work with are all far more inclusive and careful (not to say loyal) with their teams, which is a good thing – yin balances yang, here again. But beyond the smoke and drama of the battlefield, people resisting doesn’t make them wrong or bad. I find I still have to struggle to listen hard and to be generous enough to imagine a world in which what they say is true and they mean well, even though we might disagree completely on the situation in front of our very eyes.

Seeing the potential in every person maybe a very limited and workaday form of spirituality, but I’ll gladly settle for that for the time being until I think of a better answer to your question.

5 Comments | Post a Comment
Michael Bremer November 7, 2016

Kevin Meyer just wrote a book, "The Simple Leader" in it he describes his experiences learning lean and also relates his lean journey to his Zen Buddhist experiences.  I think you wrote a note on the back of his book Michael.   There is a definite spiritual aspect to Kevin's journey.

Michael Bremer November 7, 2016

Anu George and I also co-wrote an article for AME's Target Magazine - Fall 2016 issue, "The Foundation of Impactful Leadership" and we describe three elements:

1. Scientific Leadership 

2. Spiritual Leadership  - not religious, more focused on developing the whole person/self 

3. Impactful Leadership - getting the right things done in a highly effective way/clear vision and delivering meaningful value

I. Jordi November 8, 2016

Hello, I'm just "some guy who likes this Lean stuff", but I've given this matter (what we could  call "the limits of Lean") some thought, so I tought I'd contribute my dilettante vision on the matter, for what is worth.

The way I see it, Lean is empirical, i.e. physical, limited to the realm of the physical world. All the learning it creates, all the striving for perfection and respect for people it allows and promotes, it all happens in the context of physical actions.

Spirit however, belongs to metaphysics (a word that literally means beyond physics), and I don't think Lean has anything to say about it.

You mention Sakichi Toyoda's Buddhist beliefs, and for sure they will firmly root his conviction on the benefits of Lean for his company and the world; it's a great thing, as it is often remarked in this site, when a leader at the top 'gets it'; everything in the company flourshises greatly. But the reasons for that 'getting it' may vary greatly from human to human, and must be found outside the realm of Lean.

Lean per se has no moral principles to offer, except those that are linked to goal oriented efficiency; it's therefore a terrific system for people to work together, but it offers no guidance on what what to work upon. The same Lean that helps a hospital prevent medical errors could be used, without changing a comma, by a concentration camp to get 15% more people killed in the same shift, or by a terrorist group to get more people killed using less explossive, to put some extreme examples. And all those three human organizations would achieve their targets while developing their individuals, experimenting, creating a strong teamwork culture, spreading findings along the whole organization, etc... The fact that the definitions of what "value" is for the terrorist group or the concentration camp seem repugnant to our eyes, makes absolutely not difference under the Lean lense; whoever follows these principles, will get more of the targeted value in an easier, better, faster and cheaper way. But Lean does not say a word about which value is "the good one", which one is spiritually uplifting or abject. It takes a man of quality to choose the good vision, to define a True North... and then take the leap of faith.

Guillaume Dutey-Harispe November 9, 2016

As a person both interested in Lean and spirituality, I'm a bit suprised at Mr Jordi comment... 

How the "Respect for the people" core value of Lean, or "Security First" as a matter, could be align with the (willingly choosen I uderstand) extreme examples of concentration camp and terrorism ?

I have the feeling that if Lean is a strong way of enhancement for businesses, it's because it deals with much more than "productivity or efficency"... althought it's tools only adresses them.

By strongly addressing work issues on a structured way, isn't Lean adressing in depth our capacity to relate to each other to be better at what we do, individualy and collectively ?

This matter being trancendantal or not, is the choice of everyone ! :-)

Michael Webb November 12, 2016

I. Jordi, 

You said:

"The way I see it, Lean is empirical, i.e. physical, limited to the realm of the physical world. All the learning it creates, all the striving for perfection and respect for people it allows and promotes, it all happens in the context of physical actions."

I could not disagree more: Lean is not “limited” to the physical realm. The physical world simply is what it is. Physical things are desirable or undesirable only if someone appraises them. Then, someone must decide what changes will create improvement. Then the changes must be implemented. These are all actions of the mind. To ignore them is to drop the context entirely.

You said: 

"Spirit however, belongs to metaphysics (a word that literally means beyond physics), and I don't think Lean has anything to say about it."

Let’s define terms. First, attempting to mix reality with something “beyond” reality is not rational. Full stop.

Second, metaphysics studies the foundational principles of reality, including physical reality. If by “spirit,” you mean human aspirations, this belongs to the realm of consciousness, not metaphysics. Consciouness is the faculty that identifies reality - physical reality being first and foremost.

These distinctions are extremely important, because everything human beings do is a function of what is going on in their consciousness. The only choice human beings have is how effectively we decide to use that consciousness. And lean has a great deal to say about that.

Finally, you said: 

"The same Lean that helps a hospital prevent medical errors could be used, without changing a comma, by a concentration camp to get 15% more people killed in the same shift, or by a terrorist group to get more people killed using less explossive, to put some extreme examples."

Your typical Islamic terrorist values Allah, praying 5 times per day, and the murder of infidels. Neither they, nor the typical dictator values reality or knowledge or learning. They do not value voluntary cooperation. They use force to get what they want. 

Evil people like these may want to leverage some of the benefits science and rationality can create. However, their contradictions undercut them in the end. North Korea, for example, is not known for producing productive inventors or geniuses of any kind. Neither was the soviet union, or any other collectivist society. 

You said: 

"Lean does not say a word about which value is "the good one", which one is spiritually uplifting or abject."

But this is not true. To survive human beings need to produce. To thrive, they need to produce more, and it is right and moral for them to do so. Whether one wants more shoes or shirts or less inventory or lead time, the lean philosophy is valuable because it helps people achieve these good things, in voluntary cooperation with each other. It tells them whether their particular actions lead to producing value, or producing waste. By that standard, it definitely tells them what actions are good, and what actions are not. 

Michael Webb

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