If there’s one question lean practitioners love, it may be “Are we achieving our purpose?”
From time to time I’m asked if I would want to be a professor. I answer no and a frequent follow up response is: “Really, It sounds like it would be a perfect fit for you.”
In a column from earlier this year, Nicholas Kristof accurately captures why, as much as I value my academic experience, I still say no:
“The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant…
The latest attempt by academia to wall itself off from the world came when the executive council of the prestigious International Studies Association proposed that its publication editors be barred from having personal blogs. The association might as well scream: We want our scholars to be less influential!”
This doesn’t align with what is important to me. I enjoy research, but I don’t want to spend my time or energy doing it if it isn’t of value to others. So, after earning my Ph.D. in Industrial and Operations Engineering from the University of Michigan, instead of going into academia, I have been finding other ways to spend my time and energy helping others. Some of this is through lean thinking and practice, which if we look at Toyota as a model, is grounded in an ideological commitment to contributing to society that leads to better business results:
“New employees who enter the company for the simple reason that they like cars will eventually be influenced by Toyota’s founding principles and will become aware that automobiles are a means to achieving the real purpose of contributing to Japanese society. It is not difficult to imagine that a vast difference separates the business results of a group of people who come together merely because they like cars and a group of people with an ideological commitment to contributing to society.”
-Satoshi Hino, Inside the Mind of Toyota
Kristof ends his post with a call for professors to join the conversations that matter: “I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!”
As a lean coach, this makes me think: How as lean learners, researchers, and practitioners are we contributing to society? There has been great knowledge created through research. How can we leverage it and accelerate our learning curves?
One of the things that Toyota does is learn from others and enable others to learn from them. They studied Henry Ford’s Today and Tomorrow. They toured and learned from American factories and supermarkets (Liker 2004, The Toyota Way). They learn across the organization through yokoten. They open their doors and let others learn from them. Through the Toyota Production System Support Center, they reach out to help others. When learning they make sure to understand their own situation, the context they are learning from, and what needs to be adjusted for their situation when designing the countermeasure to their problem.
This is why we often hear or say “It depends” connected to lean change. But – and here is something research clearly tells us – what it depends on more precisely is:
- What is the problem you are solving?
- What is your current situation?
- What do you want to achieve, what is your target situation?
- How will the countermeasure affect the problem?
- Do you understand the purpose of it?
- Do you understand the context in which it is used?
- Does it meet the purpose you need in your situation?
- Do you need to adjust it to fit your situation?
- Does it not fit and you need to learn another way?
As we wrestle with these questions in our organizations, it’s also worth asking ourselves:
- Are we capturing and sharing what we are learning (successes and failures) in ways that allow this information to be understood in context so that others can learn from us?
- Are we looking to others to understand what they have done in context so we can learn from them?
- Are we looking at the research that has been done and learning from it?
As a researcher, I have to ask: Are we sharing what we are learning in a way that it is accessible so that we can be part of the conversations that matter?
And if we really broaden our scope, in what ways are we, as a lean community, contributing to society? In what ways should we be? What problems do we need to solve?