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And Now For Something Completely...Lean

by Brent Wahba
January 25, 2019

And Now For Something Completely...Lean

by Brent Wahba
January 25, 2019 | Comments (5)

“Comedy” and “lean” are rarely used in the same sentence, but bear with me because just maybe there’s an important connection here. When I was young(er), there were three quality high comedy options for me and my friends: Steve Martin, Saturday Night Live (SNL), and if we wanted some British highbrow, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Throughout the decades, these three continuously evolved their material and mediums to remain as relevant and popular as ever, while countless others, like Andrew Dice Clay, came and went with repetitive, “shtick” humor that got old fast.

“And now for something completely different…” – Monty Python’s Flying Circus

Psychologist Peter McGraw describes humor as a surprise or “benign violation” of the way we think the world works.  Since humans constantly crave novelty, it makes sense that we pay a lot less attention to the same old violations and instead turn our attention to something new like a singing King Tut, exploding penguin, or sarcastic Weekend Update. Throw in some social-bonding as we share the same emotional events, and now we have the basis for 40+ year comedic franchises. Or maybe lean when it sticks?

“Well, isn’t that special?” - Dana Carvey (SNL)

While not nearly as entertaining, isn’t lean also a combination of benign violations (incremental /not TOO radical change) of the way the world works (our current state) in a relevant way (solving our most important, situational problems) with a shared emotional experience (aligning, engaging, and respecting everybody)? Lean brains are still human brains, so doesn’t it seem logical that the same mental circuits that allow us to unravel riddles or create great one-liners could also be leveraged to improve flow or understand what other people value? Given these apparent similarities, let’s take this thinking a step further to make lean more successful and enduring.  

“You look - MAHVELOUS!” - Billy Crystal (SNL)

There is no doubt about it, lean looks marvelous. What organization doesn’t need to create more value AND expend fewer resources – at the same time?!!!  But Marketing 101 tells us that “looks marvelous” and “need” are not remotely the same as customer demand and usage. Sure, we could try explaining lean again (and again, and again), throw in some more examples, or make it more comprehensive (and complicated), but none of these sales techniques will improve lean’s adoption rate because, just like enduring comedy, our challenge is not a selling harder or more repetitively problem – it’s a relevancy issue, and customers define relevancy.

So what is customer relevancy and how does it apply to lean?

“You know what your problem is, it's that you haven't seen enough movies - all of life's riddles are answered in the movies.” – Steve Martin

1) It solves a really, really important, agreed-upon, and immediate problem

“What problem are we solving?” is a good coaching question, but “what problems does lean need to solve in our organization?” is a great start to making lean relevant. Organizations are full of important strategic problems (competitiveness, growth, profit, labor shortages, retention, training, automation, artificial intelligence…), but with our limited attention, we can only focus on a few critical things at one time (the science behind Strategy Deployment). How is your organization leveraging lean as THE solution to your critical few strategic problems/ideal True North?

“Strange women lying in ponds, distributing swords, is no basis for a system of government!” – Monty Python and The Holy Grail

2) Understanding and implementing the solution is easier than living with the problem

Lean may be hard work, but does it really need to be SO hard? I have lamented about this in previous Lean Posts, so I will cut to the chase: with all the experts, articles, books, and presentations, lean has become overwhelming – especially for beginners. And when consumers are confronted with overwhelming choices and confusing trial/purchase/usage paths, their brains unconsciously resort to either no decision, or just picking something else that seems easier. What is your organization doing to keep lean easy to understand and simple to implement?

“The mill’s closed. There’s no more work. We’re destitute. I’ve got no option but to sell you all for scientific experiments.” – Monty Python and The Meaning of Life

3) It’s a better solution than the other perceived alternatives

Most companies think about competitors, but strategic companies worry about alternatives. Creating the leanest cupcake shop in town is irrelevant if customers perceive Bundt cakes, crepes, or spinning classes as better alternatives. Lean has many leader-perceived alternatives: other business philosophies, different change methodologies, acquisitions, divestitures, new technologies, cost reduction, off-shoring, and of course, accepting the problems and just doing nothing. Given the number of issues and marketed solutions that today’s executives face, How is your organization implementing lean as a better use of leaders’ time, attention, and investment than THEIR perceived alternatives?

“First the doctor told me the good news – I was going to have a disease named after me.”- Steve Martin

4) It grabs customers’ attention and moves them in an emotionally positive direction

Lean can undoubtedly move people emotionally, except it’s not always positive. Most of you have heard explicit concerns over lean-related job cuts or more subtle fears of change and loss of power, but there is also an undercurrent of individual relevancy loss that coincides with many implementations. For instance, salespeople often think of their work as an “art,” so how do they feel when someone from outside their world rides in with a “better way to perform work” that is going to “productionize” their proud jobs inside a “sales factory?” Lean may include “respect for people,” but acting on that in a user-defined manner is key to making lean relevant. How can your organization make lean a more emotionally positive experience for every individual?

“Yeeaah, that’s the ticket.” – Jon Lovitz (SNL)

5) Customers can start implementing the solution immediately

Sorry, but that common change paradigm of “demonstrating success and then spreading” does not often work very well, and a multi-year change process with tiers of coaches and waves of training is not immediately appealing to a toy company who needs this year’s must-have Christmas gift, a movie studio looking for its next big hit, or an insurance company overrun with too much business. How can your organization make lean more relevant by solving big problems, at all levels, right now?

“I don't like to look back, and I'm always worried about the next thing rather than resting on the laurels or the degradations of the last thing.” – Steve Martin (speaking seriously)

6) Customers OWN the solution and become responsible for evolving its relevancy

It’s a common misperception that through reading about others’ successes, or directly observing how they do things, we can copy their lean thinking, jump to their lean solutions, and somehow cut several big corners to become lean ourselves.This works about as well as only hearing the punchline of a really funny joke because we weren’t engaged from beginning to end and therefore cannot understand their context. TPS works for Toyota because that is what evolved and was curated within Toyota. The same goes for Danaher and the Danaher Business System, and my favorite little lean company in Ohio that got 80% of lean’s benefits with only 20% of the effort. Each developed, and then evolved, their own version of lean by solving their own problems in their own way - instead of trying to apply others’ models. A cornerstone of the LEI Lean Transformation Framework is that lean is situational, and if it truly is managed that way, it will naturally start and remain relevant. How is your organization “owning” lean and evolving it to fit your specific and ever-changing situation?

Embedded in the science of comedy is relevancy, because face it, no late-night talk show host can tell a good James Buchanan joke anymore. This is a critical window into the human mind because it demonstrates how we are all programmed to constantly seek relevancy – in our entertainment, in our own contributions to the world, and in finding the best-perceived solutions to our most immediate and critical problems. Lean may very well be fundamentally better than all those other business philosophies and change methodologies, but that “fact” will have zero impact unless your organization can maintain lean’s relevancy for itself. It should be no surprise that it all starts with a relevant “True North,” so what are you a waiting for? A workshop maybe?

“It’s always something.” – Gilda Radner (SNL)

Please join Brent Wahba at the Lean Summit 2019 for his workshop “Finding North” and learn how to create and deploy your organization’s own relevant True North.

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keith robertson January 25, 2019
2 People AGREE with this comment

Great article Brent - thanks!

Love the tie to humor.

"Benign violation" is a fantastic term and I'm now having interesting visions of "exploding penguins".

Thanks for bringing such common sense and simplicity to such a complex and overwhelming discipline.


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Brent Wahba January 25, 2019

Thanks, Keith!

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Ken Eakin January 29, 2019
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What are the comedy shows that young people are watching? Being 50-ish, I can related to classic SNL, Monty Python, and Steve Martin-- and would throw in SCTV, John Byner's Bizarre, and Black Adder as well!-- but I doubt many under 40 find these shows relevant (perhaps with the exception of SNL, which is still going strong).  So I'll add another question to the many excellent ones posed in the article: How do we make Lean relevant to the next generation of leaders?

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JR February 05, 2019
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To Ken's question about 'How do we make Lean relevant to the next generation of leaders'

It's one question that I've pondered as the generational shift in the workplace progresses - there are a number of Lean practitioners who would say that one of the obstacles in sustaining Lean thinking in an organization is reticence to change thinking/habits at the senior levels of the organization - we can drive significant change and improvement at the customer-facing levels within an organization, but often lose momentum as those efforts climb the corporate office tower.

The people in those offices tend to be the generation soon to exit the workforce - so who's to say that the next generation of leaders will have the same aversions to Lean as those before?  (Hmm.. may be an interesting idea for a Lean post!)

In my opinion, if, as leaders, we continue to make the improvement efforts relevant and meaningful both to the organization and to the people within the organization, then we'll continue to find footholds for improvement, regardless of the generation we're working with - it may mean that we may have to find improvements within our own coaching/mentoring processes to better engage with a changing workforce, but it's difficult to envision a scenario where Lean (as focused on improving value to the customer) does not hold importance moving forwards - especially in a time of rapid, often disruptive, technological change is occurring in different sectors of the economy.

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Brent Wahba February 06, 2019
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Thanks JR & Ken - I appreciate the thoughts.  I too have had the same question about leadership engagement.  So let me throw out a theory and please feel free to debate or add your thoughts to it.

Most young employees start out in their careers as being pretty idealistic.  They want to change the world or at the very least be valuable contributors to their family, community, and company.  Lean is very attractive as a means to create immediate change.  As they move up, however, two things happen:  1) behaviors (good or often bad) get rewarded and the unconscious brain locks in certain thought patterns (look at me - I'm the CEO so everything I do must be right!) and 2) the nature of the work changes and becomes more abstratct and much less repeatable / predictable.  For instance, how often do CxOs create & implement new strategies?

In both cases, lean might still sound like the right thing for the organization to do, but is perceived as far less relevant for a leader to actually practice him or herself.  In leanworld we tend to teach and talk about front line applications far more than we do improving mergers & acquisitions or branding.  And without daily relevancy, lean has a lot of mental competition.

If we want to grow our next generation of leaders to continue to find lean relevant, we have to first make lean relevant to today's leaders who teach, influence, and reward them daily.  But unfortunatley, it seems as if we have to overcome a pretty big lean branding problem first, because every CEO I talk to thinks it's only about waste reduction...      


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