Problem-solving conversations are how lean practitioners identify, invent, and test improvements. One problem-solving conversation we had in the fall of 2016 looked at whether lean management was constrained by a deliberate analytical and rational way of thinking, and whether we were blinded to some new possibilities for understanding lean by focusing on it as a purely scientific discipline.
During this conversation, we formed an expectation that there are non-scientific perspectives worth considering, and that these new perspectives could contain clues leading to a wider and longer embracing of lean practices. That expectation led us to seek a group who tend to think and work in a way that includes an intuitive, divergent perspective. We chose to first work with a group of artists, as we thought they would have the most divergent perspective. This choice complemented an observation from Tom’s work in the building industry, wherein architects as design professionals tend to be most resistant to lean practices.
We met for three days with a group of artists to learn through experiences, conversations, and reflection their perspectives on lean thinking and practices. Helping us in this effort were lean practitioners John Shook, Deb McGee, Karyn Ross, David Verble, Niklas Modig, Robert Martichenko, and Bryan Wahl. We anticipated that as most of the work investigating lean has been through scientific thinking that an artistic perspective would yield important insights that have been invisible to, or at least not very deeply explored by, students of lean.
We were rewarded with three insights that will help further the interest, acceptance, and endurance of lean practices within enterprises. The first is that lean is a creative ethic.
Art Is a Process too
There was a sense from the artists that lean as practiced was a mindset, and they could see qualities in lean that mirrored not simply an artistic mindset, but a creative ethic. We choose the word ethic because the artists clearly expressed a moral reverence for artistic work as contrasted with work in other spheres; whereas a mindset, whether directed toward process or results, does not carry that same moral conviction. In other words, an ethic is more of a way of life versus what one does at work.
Despite coming from what the artists labeled “the corporate world,” many of the lean concepts discussed felt familiar to the group. One very familiar aspect was the focus on continually improving the process or practice.
For many artists, the journey to the final performance or artifact is just as significant as the performance itself, sometimes more so. This is due to the deep emotional and cognitive connection most artists experience throughout the process of making art. What happens during the process endures, while the performance or finished piece is only a point in time. When the artist observes their art they not only see the final piece but also feel and know its roots and what it took to create it. They recall the journey, and often the emotions embodied in that journey.
Considering lean as a creative ethic is profound. This creative ethic begins with a single observation made from an experience. An emotional response typically accompanies what we are calling an experience, which is later translated into some form of art. The artist’s end product or piece would allow the viewer or listener to experience the same emotion the artist originally observed. This process incorporates a mindful awareness about how they, and others can emotionally connect to an idea through their work.
An emotional transfer of information is deeper and more complete than is possible through a strictly rational form of communication. The clearest example of this transfer is through music. Think of the impact the film score has on what the audience experiences during a movie. The dialogue and the character action provide for the rational information required to know the story, however, the music is required if the audience is to experience the story.
PDCA as a Creative Process
How might this need for an emotional transfer of information apply to a lean practice, such as plan-do-check-act (PDCA)? PDCA as a creative process is not a new idea – in a September 2013 post Karyn Ross introduced that idea, and being able to speak with Karyn helped the artists make this connection. Whereas many people focus on the Plan and Do parts of the PDCA cycle what we learned through speaking with the artists is that the creative mind places the emphasis on the third element of the cycle – Check. More than checking measurable results against expectations, the artist is observing the emotional impact of a work, and it is this observation that is the most important part of the creative cycle.
This creative approach requires developing awareness, mindfulness, and curiosity; which then leads to further exploration, and an attitude of never settling for good enough. If that sounds familiar it is because the artists understood lean as a creative ethic is a way of being. It’s continuous. It allows us to work and play in a way that benefits the person, the family, and the enterprise. The question the artist seeks to consider is where to stress the system; a tactic well practiced by Taiichi Ohno, who in his own way may also have been an artist.
In future posts, we will introduce two additional insights from the workshop. One is that lean has its roots in spirituality. The other is that lean is a practice in search of a language.