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"I am the Violin," or, Mastery through Doing

by Orest (Orry) Fiume
December 2, 2020

"I am the Violin," or, Mastery through Doing

by Orest (Orry) Fiume
December 2, 2020 | Comments (4)

"I am the violin."

That was the explanation a child prodigy, who was performing concerts at the age of four, gave to someone later in her life to the question of “how did you become so talented?” 

Her statement resonated with me. Violins and lean?

I don’t know anyone who was born a lean prodigy. But I do know people that have become lean virtuosos. And her simple response revealed how important it is for lean students to learn by doing.  

When coaching others I ask the rhetorical question, “how do you learn lean?” Then, I share the answer: “by doing lean.” You learn lean by practicing lean. I compare it to learning how to play a musical instrument…hence the attraction to the opening quote. When I ask a group of people if anyone plays an instrument, there is always at least one person who does.

Follow up questions and answers:

            Q: Did you learn how to play by reading a textbook?

            A: No

            Q: Did you learn how to play by sitting in a classroom…like this one?

            A: No

            Q: How did you learn to play your instrument?

            A: By practicing

            Q: Were you very good at playing it at the beginning?

            A: No

            Q: How did you improve?

            A: By practicing

Learning lean is not intuitive, nor is it easy. Many lean principles can be counterintuitive.  And the way we understand how and why they work is by practicing them--hands on--so that we actually improve value for our customers with our own two hands. Even though we were skeptical that was possible. And then we do it again, and again, and…

I don’t know of anyone that was born a lean prodigy. But I do know people that have become lean virtuosos.Someone once said, “if you can change your mindset you can change your world.” So where to start? First, you need to decide that you are willing to see if there really is a better way. Second, since we learn by doing, you need to participate, as a team member, on a one-week Kaizen event. (Note: even if you are the CEO, you are not the CEO on that team, just another team member.) Third, you need to maintain an openness to changing your mind. You need to question whether the “to” is really better than the “from” of where you are now. 

What’s the worst thing that can happen? You don’t change your mind and consumed a week of your time. But what if your company hasn’t started down the lean transformation path yet and is not doing Kaizen? Find a good company that is doing this, and volunteer for one of their Kaizen events. At Wiremold we loved having the fresh eyes of outsiders that could look differently at things that we took for granted. Because those outside eyes had never seen our processes, asking “why” was a natural thing for them to ask. 

One of my favorite quotes is “lean is a personal journey as well as an organizational one.” In fact, I build on that because I believe that there cannot be an organization transformation until there is a personal transformation at the organization’s leadership level. I have written about this subject before. 

A couple of years ago Jim Huntzinger, co-founder of Lean Frontiers, curated a book about the early days of lean accounting.  Each chapter was written by those of us who in the late 80s/early 90s were dissatisfied with the limitations of standard cost accounting and were experimenting with alternatives.  Initially we all worked independently not knowing about each other.  Jim (an engineer) was the catalysis who brought us all together by creating the first Lean Accounting Summit.  My chapter in Jim’s book was titled “My Journey from ‘Green Eyeshades’ to ‘Lean Vision.’” 

Unlike the young lady that I quote at the beginning of this article, I was not a lean accounting prodigy. I was just an ordinary CFO who had become frustrated with the inability of the traditional accounting methods that I had learned to help me understand what was really going on in a business that was in financial trouble. I kept asking why. And I started to experiment with alternatives. Each iteration was sent to the “C” suite team, labeled supplemental information, and included a request for feedback. And the feedback was incorporated into the next iteration. Which eventually lead to the “Plain English P&L.” 

“I am the violin.” I respect that. I respect and enjoy that level of innate talent that someone is born with. Throughout history there have been wonderful examples, such as Mozart. But that’s not me, and probably not you. I had to work at developing lean vision in order to see my world, including accounting, through a lean lens.

Was it easy? No. Was it worth it? Yes!

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4 Comments | Post a Comment
Jovan Mandic December 02, 2020

Thanks for sharing nice thoughts



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Chuck December 02, 2020
3 People AGREE with this comment

As someone who has been studying the violin for the past few years this article really resonated with me. The main point--that Lean is learned by doing--is spot on. I would like to color in a few other ideas based on the comparison to learning a difficult instrument like the violin.

1) Coaching is absolutely critical: in both learning the violin and Lean you need an experienced teacher who can observe your current level and provide feedback to help you improve. Prodigies did not develop their talent in a vacuum--they had instructors who guided them to help them reach their full potential.

2) "Perfect practice makes perfect": Practice is essential, but one has to know what the right things are to practice. Otherwise, bad habits can develop and become ingrained into your playing that will hinder your ability to tackle harder, more challenging pieces. 1 hour of practicing the right things will beat 40 hours of practicing the wrong things every time. Again, the role of a instructor is vital to help those learning, whether violin or Lean, to develop the right habits to set them up for success.

3) No virtuoso is an island: Regardless of skill, violinists are dependent upon working together with others as a team to accomplish their musical goals. The greatest violinists perform music composed by others and are accompanied by an orchestra, with each musician performing their role to the best of their abilities. In the same way Lean is about teams working together in harmony with their own members and other teams to ensure that the system is accomplishing the purpose for which it was designed.



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Bob Emiliani December 02, 2020

About 0.02% of adult U.S. population are professional musicians, which means they have enormous dedication to their practice. That high level of dedication to practice might be about the same for Lean-world, perhaps a bit more. We need more of these accomplished people in leadership positions.



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Tarik December 04, 2020

Very nice comparation between Lean and music 



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