Dear Gemba Coach,
As a follow-up to your previous column on the question of whether lean has a spiritual dimension, does lean have an ethical perspective other than goal-oriented efficiency?
Another very interesting question and please understand that as with the question on the spiritual dimension of lean, this is way above my paygrade, and I certainly do not have an authoritative point of view on this. Still, it’s really interesting and worth exploring, so here are a few thoughts.
First, to my mind, lean as a whole is a project to understand what Toyota did (and does) differently, why this performs better than other business models, and how can it apply outside of Toyota, outside of the car industry, outside of industry and so on. I personally always find it useful to go back to what Toyota has to say about a topic.
It’s hard to know what really goes on in a 350,000-person global company, but if the practice is difficult to study, the ideal is pretty clear as Toyota aspires to set of guiding principles to describe the kind of company it seeks to be. They can be found on their website:
- Honor the language and spirit of the law of every nation and undertake open and fair business activities to be a good corporate citizen of the world.
- Respect the culture and customs of every nation and contribute to economic and social development through corporate activities in their respective communities.
- Dedicate our business to providing clean and safe products and to enhancing the quality of life everywhere through all of our activities.
- Create and develop advanced technologies and provide outstanding products and services that fulfill the needs of customers worldwide.
- Foster a corporate culture that enhances both individual creativity and the value of teamwork, while honoring mutual trust and respect between labor and management.
- Pursue growth through harmony with the global community via innovative management.
- Work with business partners in research and manufacturing to achieve stable, long-term growth and mutual benefits, while keeping ourselves open to new partnerships.
There is clearly more in there than goal-oriented efficiency, as several of these explicit goals are about contributing to a larger good:
- Be a good corporate citizen of the world
- Respect culture and customs of every nation
- Contribute to community development
- Provide clean and safe products to enhance quality of life
- Advance technologies to fulfill needs of customers worldwide
- Enhance individual creativity and the value of teamwork
- Honor mutual trust between labor and management
- Pursue growth through harmony
- Work with partners to achieve stable, long-term growth and mutual benefits.
We could draw them as circles of responsibility:
- Responsibility to customers through clean, safe, and innovative products that fulfill their needs
- Responsibility to employees to encourage creativity, teamwork, and mutual trust
- Responsibility to business partners to seek win-win partnerships
- Responsibility to local communities
- Responsibility to national cultures
- Responsibility as a corporate citizen of the world.
Thank you for your question, because it is very true that lean discussions tend to jump in at the level of let’s improve this or that, and let’s use this or that tool, but hardly ever asks the more fundamental questions of who are we improving this for, and why?
I can definitely see how these circles of responsibility could deeply affect the practical problems we face on the gemba. For instance, if business is down, do we fire workers? So we reduce the footprint? What impact will this have on the trust between management and employees? What impact will this have on the community?
For instance, Toyota is shutting down its Australian operation. Ford and GM have left the country, and it could not see how to maintain its activities and supplier network simply on its own. I have seen firsthand how much heartbreak and hard work the closure spurred, with a management team committed to both protecting customers through quality (their project is “last car best global car”) and how hard they are exploring options to find jobs for their employees, opening the doors of the factory to other manufacturers, and trying to sell the benefit of hiring experienced problem solvers.
Sadly, I have seen many other companies engaged in plant closures and their problem is to minimize the cost of shutting down the plant, regardless of consequences to others.
Beyond Toyota, we can ask ourselves the question the other way around: Are there ethical principles we should follow to make lean work?
From the gemba, and having been part firsthand on about two dozen lean transformations, I’d like to (tentatively) propose five ethical principles that are embedded in lean thinking, and must be considered to succeed at lean:
- Seeking to help customers solve their problems rather than trying to profit from their difficulties
- Respect others by looking at each person as an individual and not a generic case, and understanding the specifics of their situation, and listening to the obstacles they face from their point of view
- Always look for the next step, seeking a better way, even when the odds seem against it, which tends to require both creativity and courage
- Understand the profound interconnectivity of all activities and the need to both work together and be more flexible, as well as accept that not everything can be controlled
- Always stretch the circle of responsibility to see how one solution at one level works when taking a wider view, all the way to the impact of what we do on society.
I don’t know how general these can be, and I believe this is the start of a conversation, not the conclusion. Yet I do feel that when these commitments are not reinforced daily in any lean transformation effort, without a moral compass so to speak, lean tools are open to many strange and self-defeating interpretations.
To answer your question, yes, I feel that reducing lean to “goal-oriented efficiency” is too narrow a perspective. Lean thinking, I personally believe, is built on a broader set of assumptions about human nature, such as our penchant to master our work and find joy in creativity, as well as our instinct to help each other and participate to a greater good when we’re given the opportunity. These “better angels” of human nature are, to my mind, at the root of lean thinking as it developed historically at Toyota and spread beyond it. They’re built into the system. If we ignore them, we condemn ourselves to local results from using the tools, but larger failure in transforming the company.