Dear Gemba Coach,
Is there a spiritual dimension to lean?
Wow! I don’t know what to say … Is there a spiritual dimension to always striving to be better? Or just naked ambition? I have to admit this is a question I never envisaged.
By practicing lean on the gemba every day one develops one’s spirit, and in this sense, lean would not quite be “spiritual,” but could be seen by some as a spiritual practice. Certainly, old-time Toyota sensei regularly talk about the spirit of kaizenLean is definitely built on good intentions. The basis of the method is that lean thinking strives to help solve customer problems by engaging the talent and passion of people who believe there is always another way. Clearly, we can see a core dimension of seeking, striving (and overcoming the unavoidable struggles) as the very backbone of lean. If we investigate a bit more closely:
- Wanting to help customers succeed at what they’re doing and be happy with it – helping yourself by first helping others (or helping others which in turn helps yourself). This is definitely a variant on the golden rule, a dynamic version of “do as you would be done by” – is this “spiritual” or just neighborly, hard to tell.
- Seeking to discover one’s own misconceptions by empirical problem solving. A key scientific – but disturbing to many – facet of lean is that deeper understanding is achieved by progressively clearing the layers of misconceptions that cloud clear vision, much like Michelangelo claiming to seek the statue in the block of marble by chipping away the stone. This means that our initial ideas are tested empirically and, in fact, an experiment that shows no correlation between our hypothesis and its impact is actually good news because if we can discard a wrong belief, we are better positioned to look for new ones. It turns out this simple, pragmatic approach to scientific thinking goes against the grain of how human minds work, which is motivated thinking (first posit your conclusion and then look for the evidence) and is deeply disturbing to many who feel instinctively that some beliefs should not be challenged. There is an element of unending struggle for self-betterment here as the temptation to give in to our existing beliefs and dismiss challenging facts, whether from others or from experience, is ever-present. Is this spiritual, again, hard to say, but it does have the hallmarks of a defining “great task” for oneself.
- Giving everyone a chance to grow to the full potential of their abilities (and challenging them to be their best). This other core tenet of lean is interesting because it aims at finding a balance between the individual good and the greater good. This is where lean is often accused of being too challenging or too cynical. On the one hand, you’re supposed to push people so they take the full space they can take so that they grow and contribute, and on the other you’re supposed to keep them in a realistic achievement zone so that they achieve success in relative comfort (a bit of struggle, but not overwhelmingly so). This, of course, is an almost impossible balance to strike, and one always gets it wrong in either yang (push to hard) or yin (yield too much). I suspect that this search for the yin-yang balance could be considered spiritual in Asian cultures, but we tend to like it simple, such as, on the one hand, Star Trek’s Mr. Spock sacrificing himself on the principle that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one,” or, on the others, rugged individualism. Tricky.
- Acknowledging other’s difficulties and solving problems together across boundaries. If you want to go quick, go alone; if you want to go far, go together, says an African proverb, and definitely “togetherness” infuses lean thinking through and through. Is this sort of dynamic communitarianism spiritual? Some would argue so.
On the whole, I’d have to say that, as John Shook, once told me, lean is not value-free – lean thinking is certainly based on solid core values of seeking the best for others and society and finding individual realization within that stretching effort. A large unsaid part of that is close to the values of athletes: by challenging yourself you also put pressure on your competitors, which both allows you to win and impose your pace on the field: your ideas, your values, your direction. Ethical, certainly. Spiritual, to some, maybe, in the sense of the spiritual life of the marathon runner.
In the lean literature, there are occasional reports of Sakichi Toyoda’s deep Buddhist beliefs, and indeed, he tended to express his vision in strong moral, not to say moralizing terms. Still, I doubt there is any transcendent vision in lean. The notion that lean thinking should liberate the superior plan of higher forces by our personal commitment to daily lean thinking, if it exists at all, is then deeply hidden and esoteric. I for one, have never encountered it.
The case for immanence, on the other hand, could be made. The idea that through practicing lean thinking every day something beyond banal is realized does seem to show up consistently. I remember vividly an old-timer Japanese sensei telling me he needed three minutes to assess a plan: look, hear, smell – three minutes! This is a goal I personally still strive for and, yes, there is a mystery to it beyond checklists and tools.
For example, yesterday, thinking about this, I conducted the three-minute exercise with the CEO and COO of a company – just three minutes in silence watching, hearing, smelling, while observing a maintenance center. We’re good friends of many years and we could feel … something and discovered something new, also. At the end of the three minutes, we could hear the difference between the regular sound of someone sweeping and the occasional loud clang — smooth flow versus mura/muri. When we investigated, we saw a technician throwing heavy stuff into a van and clearly struggling with the equipment. It was an eye-opener.
It is possible to think that by practicing lean on the gemba every day one develops one’s spirit, and in this sense, lean would not quite be “spiritual,” but could be seen by some as a spiritual practice. Certainly, old-time Toyota sensei regularly talk about the spirit of kaizen, of kaizen consciousness, and so it’s part of their vocabulary. But it would be a very limited, immanent spirituality where the principle is inscribed in the act itself, and the practice strives to grow this inner light. It probably works in Asian terms but I doubt it fits with Western spiritual notions of seeking to join with a higher being (or “Truth”) through prayer, practice, or submission.
Thank you for this very interesting question – I had simply never considered it. I fear my answer falls woefully short, but this has definitely stretched my mind. It has also made me face one of my own spiritual shortcomings and hardest struggle: to continue to see the potential in every person even when their circumstances makes them behave like jerks.
Let me clarify. In the tension between needing to move fast in order to turn around companies in desperate trouble and developing every person, I personally fall on the bias of the football coach: first select the best players, and then get them to play together. I will seek out early on the few who “get” the seeking a better way and ignore all those who resist or are simply not interested. This, however, is first not very nice, and also not very effective because seen from the other side, people are not reassured that whatever changes we want to make are going to happen with them and to their benefit.
The best kids swimming coach I know bases his pedagogic approach on the fear of water. I’m not so good with the fear of change but have done this long enough to know better. Thankfully, I only teach and the leaders I work with are all far more inclusive and careful (not to say loyal) with their teams, which is a good thing – yin balances yang, here again. But beyond the smoke and drama of the battlefield, people resisting doesn’t make them wrong or bad. I find I still have to struggle to listen hard and to be generous enough to imagine a world in which what they say is true and they mean well, even though we might disagree completely on the situation in front of our very eyes.
Seeing the potential in every person may be a very limited and workaday form of spirituality, but I’ll gladly settle for that for the time being until I think of a better answer to your question.