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Grit, PDCA, Lean and other four-letter words

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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of what author Angela Duckworth calls Grit. She defines grit as a sort of mash-up between passion and perseverance. What I’ve been thinking about is the way that grit overlaps with lean thinking and the sustained work of applying PDCA over many cycles over a sustained period of time.

I’ve come to appreciate the relationship between the challenging work of PDCA and this thing called “grit.” Practicing lean over the long term is indeed hard work—but not in the way that some people assume or even experience in their companies. Calling for improvement through the disciplined and patient application of PDCA thinking is certainly a challenge, but should not be exhorting people to just work harder, jump higher, and do more.

To offer a lean perspective, I’ve come to recognize that the practices that embody PDCA (standardized work with kaizen, the A3 process, and more) provide means by which people can develop grit. If you involve PDCA in a disciplined and rigorous ongoing way (through mechanisms like daily huddles, hour-by-hour charts, and even kanban to offer a few examples) then the abnormalities that are revealed will lead you to develop a sense of perseverance. Facing and productively framing the waste, the overburden, the unevenness, and other gaps between what is expected or desired and what’s actually happening; can lead your team to develop perseverance. But what about passion?

Let me briefly tell you a story. Several years ago, a group of executives from a company that was early in their lean learning visited a Toyota parts distribution center. A relatively young Toyota team leader made a presentation to the visiting executives that was supposed to last only thirty minutes. After ninety minutes and a lot of Q&A, the team member finally returned to his work. In reflection, the executives expressed as a main takeaway that their company needed to hire more people like him to boost the frontlines of their company. They were awestruck by his level of engagement with the company and passion for his work. But they missed the point entirely! They didn’t recognize that TPS (or lean thinking) helped create that result—that it was indeed deliberately created.

That’s why I’m so excited as we approach the 2020 Lean Summit, April 6-7, which focuses on creating teams and organizations with grit and perseverance. This year we offer an array of learning opportunities led by individuals who have experienced lean transformation through persistent, patient struggle at their gemba, and who can help you improve your value-creating work, including the work of lean transformation.

All of our learning activities will be led by practitioners sharing lessons from the gemba. Every individual, from Deublin President Ron Kelner to Crayola Continuous Improvement Manager Cindy Donchez, will reflect on lessons they learned from disciplined practice over time. And while the speakers and events are wonderfully diverse in myriad ways, they all share one common trait: they have all displayed a strong degree of perseverance in improving their work.

We are also designing the summit to boost the basic flow of learning from the high level to the details. Plenary speakers who will share tales of lean transformation include CEO Peter Davoren of Turner Construction Company, Lynn Community Health Center CEO Kiame Mahaniah, and Pat Greco, formerly Superintendent of the school district of Menonomee Falls, Wisconsin.

This knowledge cascades into more focused learning sessions of greater depth led by individuals such as Dr. Lisa Yerian of the Cleveland Clinic and Henrique Imbertti Jr. who is leading a remarkable digital transformation for a Brazilian retail company that’s similar to Best Buy.

The final thread will be woven into workshops on topics that experienced coaches have been teaching for years. In many cases, these coaches are supporting the companies that are presenting during the summit. Several examples are Mark Reich teaching a workshop on hoshin, Margie Hagane and Eric Ethington teaching workshops on A3 thinking, and Mike DeLuca teaching a workshop on the Lean Profit Model.

A new aspect of the summit is a gallery with various exhibits that will provide hands-on and immersive learning experiences. Since it’s not possible to take all of the attendees on dozens of gemba visits, the gallery will be our attempt to bring “gembas” to the hundreds of attendees. One example of a gallery exhibit is a replica of an obeya that’s guiding cross-functional resources through the arduous and ambiguous work of product and process development. I’m very excited for this addition to LEI’s Lean Summit!

I recently started re-reading the book Grit and was reminded that Duckworth believes that this quality can be grown. I agree. I believe that patient PDCA practice on the lean path is one fundamental way to develop this characteristic.

Come join us in Carlsbad, April 6-7, on our shared lean voyage!


Josh Howell
President, Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.
Boston, MA 

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