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If lean is all about people, why are the discussions impersonally cold and rational?

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Dear Gemba Coach

Lean thinkers say it’s all about people, but the debates are then all so cold and rational. Where are the emotions and the effects that real people have at work?

Fascinating question – And, yes, on the gemba, emotions are very present, both positive and negative ones. The puzzling and fascinating question here is that negative emotions are not necessarily bad, and positive ones are not necessarily good.

In his preface to the upcoming French version of The Lean Strategy, the CEO of a 430-million euro digital business he co-founded and built up with his partner from a computer on a desk explains how he turned to lean thinking to successfully recapture the double-digit growth that had stalled as the company had begun to get clogged by its administrative processes, silos, and misalignments.

By refocusing everyone’s job on customer satisfaction and developing a culture of problem-solving he got the growth engine started again, in terms of turnover, profitability, and people engagement. But as he points out, it’s not easy, particularly at the start. First, as a leader, working with a sensei forces him to face the issues he doesn’t particularly want to look into, the elephants in the room that everyone is trying hard to work around. Secondly, on the gemba, looking deeply into things is often felt by teams – and mostly by middle-managers – as criticism, and they inevitably fall into denial, justification, and rationalization. It takes time to establish the fact that there is no moral judgment in asking questions, just curiosity.

Misery and Effort

This is a well-known difficulty of the lean approach. As Akio Toyoda, Toyota president, explains: “At Toyota, we have always invested heavily in developing leaders who understand and live the principles and values of the company. We want our DNA to be encoded in every leader and every team member at every level of the company. We expect greatness from all of our people. We expect them to accept and conquer challenges that may seem overwhelming at first glance. The greatness in people comes out only when they are led by great leaders. We are all growing and learning, and we all need teachers and coaches to help guide us. We say at Toyota that every leader is a teacher developing the next generation of leaders. This is their most important job.”

So far, so good, and similar to what the digital company CEO expresses in terms of facing impossible challenges. But here comes the catch, Akio Toyoda continues:

“A real irony is that respect for people requires that people feel the pain of critical feedback. When team members share with us the results of their improvement activities we always say 'show us the bad news first. What do you still have a problem with?' If we do not give people accurate feedback based on real behavior they are not growing and we are not respecting them. The job of a leader is not to put them in positions to fail but to put them in challenging positions where they must work hard to succeed and still see how they could have been even better. Our goal is for every Toyota team member from the worker on the production floor to our most senior executives to be working to continuously improve themselves. We all need sensei who will guide us to the next level of achievement. I personally have many sensei teaching me.”

No one in his or her right mind enjoys being criticized – so that’s a negative emotion. But well-meaning questioning to explore unclear issues is clearly a good thing. On the other hand, self-satisfaction and praise feel really good but are generally a bad thing as our brains are built full-time for validation (this is good), justification (I didn’t have a choice), and rationalization (it looks bad now, but somehow it will turn out good).

On the other hand, it feels really, really good when you’ve gone through the struggle part of learning with a team and mastered a new skill. Personally,  I’m ridiculously pleased with the three online masterclasses I’ve cobbled together with the help of a few friends (https://thegoldmine.jimdo.com https://tlmmasterclass.jimdo.com https://lwrmasterclass.jimdo.com ) As a writer, video is not a natural medium for me, but having done it and put the website together – which was a struggle and did I complain about it -  is deeply satisfying.

The interesting difficulty with the question you ask is that since lean is essentially about challenge and self-improvement, there are complex emotions involved in terms of the instant emotion and delayed gratification. Much as in sports, the glory of future success is achieved at the cost of right now misery and effort.

5 Lean Emotions

Your question has made me take a step back and try to recall lean as it was when I encountered it 25 years ago, as well as it has become now, and what comes to mind are five specifically lean emotions that you don’t casually encounter in other approaches: 1/ positive paranoia, 2/ irritation at muda, 3/ the sweetness of good kaizen, 4/ the satisfaction of succeeding at a team effort, and 5/ the joy of seeing someone grow.

1. Paranoid Optimisim. Alright, agreed, the term sounds strong, and yes, not nice. But I’ve seen it all along. This is paranoia in the terms of feeling that if you don’t fix problems now they will smother you later, not in the clinical sense of being overwhelmed by imaginary threats and wearing a tinfoil had to avoid being mind-controlled by aliens.

When faced with a challenge, say, learn video as a medium when you’re an author, there are two options: 1/ I’ll finish all that I have to write now and then I’ll look into it, or 2/ I’ll try making one video right away, and then get on with my writing queue. That’s it. No third option. Trouble is, making a video is a horrid prospect. It’s going to look terrible. We don’t know where to start. We don’t even like videos in general. And it might be costly without income to put in front of it. On the other hand, writing one more piece is an attractive idea since it will get us ahead and reduce the backlog and bring some income in and so on. The only emotion that will drive you to take the blue pill is the paranoia that if you don’t learn video now, no one will read your prose in ten years’ time. Video will never replace text. Different media have different information value. But it can’t be ignored either as some hybrid model will eventually establish itself.

Looking and facing challenges is driven by a deep-set fear of becoming complacent and losing relevance if we don’t solve our deepest problems now and keep our heads buried in day-to-day activity hoping our jobs will still be there in a decade – or less, these days.

It’s positive paranoia, however, because there is a strong, deep-seated pleasure in actually succeeding at facing a challenge and at overcoming your own denial. In the sense of Montaigne, the 16th-century philosopher, “thinking against oneself” to respond to a clear challenge is a powerful driving emotion. 

2. Irritation at muda. Yes, exactly that, annoyance at seeing the waste all around you. It’s an emotion. Some people mind, some people don’t. There is a Taiichi Ohno quote that goes, “There is a secret to the shop floor, just as there is a secret to a magic trick. Let me tell you what it is. To get rid of waste you have to cultivate the ability to see waste. And you have to think about how to get rid of the waste you’ve seen. You must repeat this- always, everywhere, tirelessly and relentlessly.”

Seeing what a flawless, fluid, smooth process should be like and then the ridiculous waste because of friction: grains of sand that throw people off, wrongly interpreting what is going on and reacting badly, poor attitudes and wrong opinions, and so on makes you really mad. A key emotion of lean is the deeply held feeling that there must be a better way and that people should be looking for it. It’s an emotion because it’s clearly not a fact. In many cases, the people in the situation are not particularly looking for a better way even if they agree that what they do is absurd, and are not particularly willing to try to change things. Learned helplessness is also an emotion.

Seeing the waste and wanting to do something about it is a driving lean emotion.

3. The sweetness of good kaizen. Not a heavy, investment-rich solution, but the frugal, clever small change that makes things work more fluidly. I used to fence as a (much) younger man and I once met a true Polish fencing master who watched me for a few seconds and then, without saying a word, pushed my elbow in slightly – realigning my entire body. Sweet. Amazing. When you spend time on the gemba, some kaizen efforts are bureaucratic and pedestrian: people go through the motions, and come up with … doing more of the same in a different way. But occasionally, someone comes up with something really clever. This “yes” emotion is a very specific lean emotion.

And as such, quite hard to acquire, particularly without a sensei. Too often we get involved in looking at the finger rather than the moon it points at and find it hard to distinguish a “sweet” kaizen effort from a “go-through-the-motions” one. This needs looking for, cultivating and learning case by case.

4. The satisfaction of succeeding at a team effort. This is like painting the second eye on the Daruma, a Japanese papier mâché round doll modeled after Bodhidharma’s head, with two white eyes. At the beginning of an endeavor, you paint one black. Then, when you have successfully accomplished your quest, you paint the second eye black.

Lean is first and foremost a team sport, and there is a uniquely satisfying emotion is succeeding together. Because of the “continuous” aspect of continuous improvement, and because of the overwhelming nature of the challenges we take on, it is easy to forget to occasionally stop, look back, and see the progress we’ve made (even if the way ahead seems just as daunting). Imagine that you’re sitting on an exponential: behind looks flat, in front looks steep.

Therefore, it’s important to break the way in moments of acknowledging steps and sharing a beer, a pizza, a good laugh, a pat on the back, to say, “yes,” we’ve done it together. Individual achievement is an important emotion, of course, but not as sweet as the feeling of a team coming together to accomplish something concrete.

5. The joy of seeing someone grow. Yesterday, I started teaching again the lean engineering class that our lean engineering sensei, Cecile Roche, had taken over for a couple of years. This is a community of practice where once a month a group meets on the gemba of the engineering department of a company, and we look into applications of lean engineering principles and practices. Some members of this group have participated since the start, several years ago.

The first person I met was an engineer who had participated in the very first session. He now ran his own engineering department and had so many things to discuss, successes and failures, so many new ideas, and as we introduced the concepts to the newcomers in the participants, he had deep insights to share. I was wowed, both thrilled and humbled. This emotion is hard to describe, but it is an unmistakably lean emotion: seeing someone spread out, rise above a narrow understanding of their job and seeing it both in greater detail and greater breadth, the impact on people around them and the full company, as well as taking easy responsibility for things not under their direct control. Wow. Cool.

Obviously, this shortlist is very personal, and I have no idea how general it is. What do you think? What would be your key lean emotions?

3 Comments | Post a Comment
Ken March 8, 2018


I enjoyed reading your article. You articulate well the positive emotions of lean practice. 

Nonetheless, I felt you did not quite answer the question. I inferred (perhaps wrongly) that the question was about the way many lean enthusiasts speak only in terms of closing measurable gaps, adhering to standards, producing to takt, defining the problem, meeting the numbers, and so on.  Nothing about feeling better about one's work.  Nothing about reducing overburden. Those who lead kaizen events can sometimes come across as spreadsheet stormtroopers with OCD-- insisting on the disciplined gathering of cycle times and lead times and wait times of every single process step in the entire value stream.  This often makes people participating in the event feel as though lean is cold and rational.  Lean can appear to be only about numbers (especially time and money), and perfectly mapped processes, but not about people and how they feel at work, or how they feel about the work, or how they'd like to feel both at work and about the work (which are obviously comingled).

I expect you'll say that this is simply lean in the hands of inexperienced practitioners.  Yet it happens all the time! (Not everyone is a seasoned sensei.  Many are young "black belts" deployed by management to execute technocratic solutions to operational problems so that they, the managers, don't have to).  This is wrong, but why?  Why does this happen so frequently and what could be done to prevent it, or to make it better?

Michael Ballé March 9, 2018

Thank you Ken, good points!

Have you come across this brilliant Toyota video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EedMmMedj3M

As the tools are ways to reveal muda and get people to think about it (a starting point, not an ending point) it's often hard to disentangle both.

Most people looking at the video miss the emphasis the film makers place on "George" - the leader: his positive energy, commitment and willingness to learn, and how others look up to him.

I was ont he gemba with the CEO of a large company yesterday, and what we discuss with the teams and their management is 1/ how well does the tool orient them in terms of visual management, 2/ what problems they identify through the tool 3/ how they go about it to solve it and 4/ what help do they need from management to overcome internal obstacles.

But, the discussion with the CEO and the area VPS are all about the local leaders: what energy do they bring, how good at they at listening, caring abut their customers, working across functional barriers and taking care of their teams.

As you can imagine these are rather emotional discussions.

The discussion with the CEO is all about whether we have the right leadership in place, the right energy, and, you might be suprised, whether we're maintaining a Yin-Yang balance: strong CEOs getting into lean tend to be very yang: pushing everywhere for things to move forward. But we also understand the company is a village and people need to live there, so we discuss whether we alllow for enough yin: give time for people to learn, to familiarize themselves with being nudged out of their comfort zones, with spaces for complaining and people who will listen to them if they need to unberden themselves of personal difficulties.

Is that what you had in mind?

Ken March 16, 2018

Thanks for your response Michael.  Yes, I've seen that video and love it.  It's emotional in the sense that lean is being used for the good of a community. It's good people helping other good people for the communal good.

What I had in mind was more Shingo Shingo's quote: "There are four purposes of improvement: easier, better, faster, and cheaper. These four goals appear in the order of priority.”  

I was thinking especially about the "easier" component being the first priority.  This is the notion of lean practitioners (at any level of a company) leading with the attitude towards employees of "we're doing lean to make your job easier; to make you like your work more; to lessen your burden of having to work such long hours".  Rather than leading with the attitude of "we're doing lean to save money, make everyone more productive, save our jobs and hopefully increase sales" (which is unfortunately how lean comes across sometimes).

Perhaps this is the importance of local leaders "taking care of their teams" as you mention. Lean leaders have to reduce variation for the purpose of easing the burden on employees as their first priority.  Then it's all about caring for people first and not the "cold and rational" financial results second.

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