Lean, with Joy and Mary…

I prefer to comment on a blog, on the blog itself. It helps to convert them from monologue to dialogue: which all bloggers appreciate. On this occasion, however, I have got too much to say and it would distract from the excellent blog on Lean, published by Joy Furnival.

A few weeks ago, while Joy was musing over Lean ‘being blamed for various supply chain failings’, we exchanged some thoughts on twitter, just to get the creative juices flowing. It looks like, given the tweets and the subsequent blog that we agree on many things, albeit from different perspectives, but I feel obliged to expand on a couple of Joy’s points, opinions, insinuations.

  • Here’s Joy’s honest expression of what Lean means and her dismay at some of the crap that’s spouted, not it its favour. JOY
  • And here’s one of my blatherings that explains Lean (in the middle of a rant about shit off-the-shelf learning and development). ME

But before I go there, a minor thorn in my side to squeeze out, like a zit. I’m always nervous of anything tagged with the ‘Thinking’ suffix and I don’t like Lean Thinking as a title, nor Lean being described as primarily a way of Thinking. I call it Tinkering with Thinkering. We disagree on this one, but in my lived experience, the thinking bullshit can create the worst kind of know-it-all pompous proselyte, who probably ends up creating the kind of criticism in normal humans, that Joy refers to. My constant response to those arseholes, is easily summarised:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet (1.5.167-8)
Richard Pascale – Ebbs, flows, and residual impact of business fads

I’ve posted this lovely chart from Richard Pascale before, to make a similar point. Basically TQM, TPS, JIT, BPR, 7 Habits, DMAIC, every single thing by the Improvementalists, quite a lot of the ad nauseum touted as Systems Tinkering and finally Lean, are pretty much, all the same. And anyone who does this – ‘LEAN’ – is a bloody idiot. Lean is not an acronym, it’s a reference to Bacon (the pork not the philosopher) from a 1990 book about Toyota.

Similarly, Cybernetics is what happens when nerds have a go at thinking systematically, with no conscious awareness of the entire history of philosophy. They think every oblique murmur is somehow a profound personal invention. I love the complete solipsistic nonsense, that your models of the world are just in your head, not in the world. If that murmur from Stafford Beer was true, it could only be true in his head! Anyway if your Great⁹ grandmother, couldn’t generate an accurate schema of the savanna, you wouldn’t be here.

Lean as a form of Thystems Sinking Light, is a whole different discipline to Thinking Systematically. Subsequently, there’s a nasty habit of each management generation attempting to replicate this fallacy, pretending that they invented thinking; and marketising the same stuff over and over again, replete with Shiny new middleclass coffeeshop psychobabble.

It’s a consequence of two things smashing together: the irresistible force that generic management is not actually a proper profession; with the immovable object of undergraduation that lacks any comparable depth to make it one. It’s just administration for those, who’s lack of vocation, manifests as a massive chip on their shoulder. I’ve been a manager for over 20 years, so I’m allowed to poke fun at the middle muddle.

Anyway Lean like all the rest, is a fine collection of complementary concepts to think with, methods to practice and tools to speed up the action. All of which is perfectly designed to improve, designed processes. The problem is always caused by trying to implement it like a doctrine, rather than live with it, like a wardrobe (the clothes not the furniture). The Lean Thingy that you buy off some inevitable conman, is usually overwhelmed by all the insipid efficiency charts, simplistic acronyms and flashy platitudes, quoted from some half-soaked dead bloke. The real problem is the quotes are from last year’s dead blokes, whereas the insightful dead blokes you need to learn from, are now more Gaia than Geezer.

Now Joy is quite right to point out that Lean is all about people, because no socio-technical systems would exist if we hadn’t invented them. But Lean compensates for the socio with the technical, it’s all about increasing levels of control over teleological processes. That’s fine, but not everything that people do in this context, is a process.

I’m constantly dismayed by the fad-mongers having no conscious awareness of Mary Parker Follett. She’s my go to, whenever I need to demonstrate that the good ideas are not always, new. She was a social worker, an organisational theorist and a human systems advocate, 100 years before anyone else. Mary was not accepted to Harvard for the PhD, because she was a woman! Despite this, Mary distinguished herself in the field of management by being sought out by Theodore Roosevelt. She was appointed as his personal consultant on managing nongovernmental and voluntary organisations. The irony is palpable!

With regard to the Social Work, I don’t like the phrase Social Science as at it’s conception, amidst the Newtonian softplay of the late 19th century, the literal interpretation would have been a paradoxical anathema. I’ve nicknamed it Socience. The word in my head – and after all I invented it – acknowledges that we didn’t invent Complex Systems, we evolved in them and we learnt pretty early on that despite effortlessly functioning within them, we cannot control them – that’s the Socience. In your everyday normal lives, you naturally, not instinctively but intuitively, navigate the natural complexity, while rarely consciously thinking about it. Your social knowledge and capability is in situ: your socience, is embodied.

Complexity & Lean

The relationship of Complexity with Lean is analogous to the constant comparisons of healthcare with aviation. A plane is a huge machine, a lean system, designed to work perfectly and preferably, not kill the biological bits… very often. Healthcare is a huge biology, that’s constantly failing, with the odd little machine doing the boring repetitive stuff. Although aviation is designed around the people, its technique is called Aeronautics. In Healthcare the technique is called Medicine and it’s only about people.

They are not the same and I suspect that the only thing to be learned in Healthcare from a plane, is after it’s crashed…

To summarise the point of a click on that picture: in Aeronautics and Lean, when there’s a weak part, you try to fix it, but that mostly involves replacing some bits with new bits or at the scale of the system, replacing the whole part with a better one. Yes in Healthcare we occasionally replace a bit of a person (with a less efficient second hand bit) but at the scale of the system, we don’t replace the whole person. We look after them, nurture them, compensate for any weakness and help them find a new way of being in the world – it’s called rehabilitation.

The management of medicine, must complement the practice of medicine.


Obviously, I’m using the word Medicine as a catchall for The Science, The Art, The Humanity and most importantly The Complexity of being alive. An umbrella term, for all the fabulous people, professions, shit shovellers & lectern grabbers, specialists, generalists and versatilists that interact to make healthcare the most important practice in the world.

That’s way more than Lean, in fact it’s the philosophical antithesis of a teleological design and medicine has been dealing with this inherent uncertainty for thousands of years. The useful ways of thinking are very, very old!

School of Athens

Complex things need fat, they need entropy and variety; spare energy and millions of ways to waste it. It doesn’t mean that some of Healthcare’s more mechanical bits, can’t be improved with some Lean but that must not be at the expense of nurturing the wonky, autonomous, fickle, diverse and bloody splendid humans. In many peoples’ experiences, that’s exactly what the crap, process oriented implementation, does and Lean gets the blame.

I’ve witnessed the epiphany when Improvementalists realise that Health is built outside their factory, not in it.


Lean in Practice

Joy goes on to suggest that Lean was developed to solve complex problems and plan improvements. This insinuation, makes me think the word Complex is being used in this context to mean really really Complicated. I’m going to peek above the parapet and suggest that organisations are not complex systems; there are too many fixed constraints within its design. The interactions of the people, as they play out the causal amplification of the design’s affect in real time, are however, typically non linear, but not an intention of the organisational design, itself. Strategy for breakfast, and all that.

Unlike complicated socio-technical systems, in complex adaptive ones, problem solving is rarely the right thing to do as by definition, you won’t be able to completely understand it. In complexity, most of the time you don’t solve problems, you may absorb them, choose to accept them, go around them, reinforce them, or just play with them for a while. Sometimes amidst the complexity the emergent change is so oblique that what was once perceived as a problem, is now a strength or more likely, utterly irrelevant. That’s a whole different set of practices that are not exclusive to, or even explicit within Lean.

Ok Ok, both Joy and I have some deep respect for Gemba, Nemawashi, Hansei and Bushido, (I think that last one is just me HaHa). These divergent ideas and practices of: exploration, field research, experimentation, discontinuous learning and seeking but not defining purpose: existed a long time before Lean and are a foundational part of many other, much older professions and practices. Remember, management hasn’t been around anywhere near as long as medicine.

I think that this is what really gets on peoples nerves about Lean and the proselytes who think they invented the good stuff. These fanatics don’t half love their marketing and boldly insist (on a standardised PowerPoint that they didn’t write) that everybody learns the Lean-ology favourite words and Lean-ology re-definitions and uses only the Lean-ology exclusively trademarked hammers and nails. The worst ones get so wrapped up in the Japanese Mysticism that they give each other ninja names and ranks. You can get a Lean-ology certificate and a belt, from two days in a cheap hotel. Just like gonorrhoea.

Hansei, is a personal commitment to owning your work and improving yourself. Gemba or Genchi Genbutsu is learning by immersing yourself in the place (not the task). Nemawashi is working around the roots, the socience, the people, the ‘Maryness’ of your community. These ideas are old, not exclusive to Lean and I’m sure Taichi Ohno himself would be happy to express the essence of his method, as harnessing, not exploiting and that’s the Bushido.

Kaizen or continuous improvement is all about shaving efficiency off the little bits in an ever decreasing circle, albeit with a big box of bloody useful stationery. Fiddling is what the conman usually flogs, amidst the HappyClappy fog, with little or no appreciation of the rest. The rest is old and not copyrighted, it takes time, appreciation of the asset, nurturing and adaptation to the present generation’s beautifully wonky humanity. If you think you can do Lean in less than 10 years, you’re an idiot or a conman and you should read my blathering about thriving, Beyond Complexity.

Perfect is the enemy of Practice!

Well, just for a start, Doctors were plotting observational data over time, way before time series was invented and Nurses and Therapists have been working with people to improve complex behaviours, for at least 2500 years. Midwives go back another 60,000 years, but that’s another Story. Like them, you can take life long learning seriously, you can encourage people to be curious, you can celebrate those who challenge the status quo and you can help them find the right kind of science to prototype, test and refine their concepts, methods and tools. Now, some Lean Tinkers include this stuff, which is essentially an evolutionary, or adaptive approach to improvement …. and evolution is inherently complex!

What? Yes, I believe the underpinning ideas and practices can help you cope with complexity, but not because they are Lean, but because they’ve been around for thousands of years. So instead of being a fanatic, keep the Lean-ology in your personal store cupboard, like the one under your stairs, full of useful shite, you don’t want people to see. Then, alongside the Lean in your cupboard, please scatter a selection of fat ideas and enduring stuff from the rest of the world’s concepts, methods and tools from all kinds of professions and practices and peoples and cultures. Lean is not a panacea and it’s certainly not evil, but you got to watch out for the fanatics with their giant Shiny tool box and fuckall real experience, on your patch.

Thanks to @DocCharlieAlice for the linked reference to xkdc.com

A Lean proselyte, at its best, is like a distant relatives’ enthusiastic toddler. You don’t dislike them and they are not completely horrible, but the dribbling and babbling becomes annoying, so the most memorable happy feeling, is handing them back to the distant relative!

I know that paragraph is likely to get several of the Lean-ology Toolheads frothing at the hip, slapping their baldy foreheads and sharpening their SPC charts. Fortunately, they won’t have the stamina to read all the way down to this. Unless, they are egged on by a Systems Tinker – who once read a blog – to respond with something bitey? They’ll get both barrels! However, I do promise to be kind to any halfwit Demingologists brandishing a certificate or a coloured belt and trying to tell me what I don’t know about improving their Gonorrhoea Thinking.

So, before you go shooting your mouth off, let me point out a couple of things. Firstly, I’m an annoyingly overqualified designer who learnt this stuff from some serious practitioners – including those trained in Toyota – and they are all, still my friends. Lastly, go and read anything by Mary Parker Follett and then try to imagine the century of insightful ongoing development across the world that you didn’t learn about, while becoming a lean-ology proselyte.

Please, I really mean it, leave a comment and if you’ve got a good balance of sarcasm and insight, I may even pay attention and say something nice.

4 thoughts on “Lean, with Joy and Mary…

Add yours

  1. Blah Blah Blah….. SOCIENCE! I love it! Henceforth, that’s my aspiration.
    Few people remember that the little key from a sardine tin, or Corn-beef tin could be used to steal a classic mini car. Lean is a little like that. Use the key to feed your brain and open up your thinking to connect ancient thinking to your present day context – cool. Use the key to steal a vehicle and drive it recklessly – not so cool.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There’s not much new in the world – like you say.
    I used to talk to my Gran about this stuff.
    She knew a woman who had worked in the munitions factories in Bridgend during the war.
    She was referred to as ‘Auntie Joan’ – probably not a real Auntie – but who knows, family connections can be a bit opaque here in the Valleys.
    Anyway, the story was that Aunty Joan basically ran the place.
    Joan was nominally called ‘supervisor’, in today’s language it would be leadership ‘something’.
    The methods Joan used in organising things would be recognised as Lean and ‘The Toyota Way’ by anyone with a time machine who cared to pop back into Bridgend 70 years ago.
    All Joan was doing was; treating people tidy (mostly women) getting them to talk to each other, not wasting things and keeping the suits in the office where they belonged.
    Of course, all that changed when the War ended and the blokes came back.
    Joan could have taught Mr Demming a few things.
    Of course, I can’t validate any of this.
    My Gran is long gone, and she did love a story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have heard of a woman called Nani, who worked in the specialist steel works in Llanelli, the same one that the indestructible saucepans used to come from. Nobody really knew what Nani did, or at least what she was employed to do, but everyone agreed Nani was indispensable. She knew everyone’s name and their mams, as she did her morning rounds. There was usually cake or biscuits in close proximity, but not to be fooled by the old bones and the kind heart, she could stand at any station and do anyone’s job. In fact, she’d insist on it, if anyone looked under the ‘whether or not’.

      It turned out that Nani, wasn’t actually an employee, but she’d been around so long that the recent chain of bosses didn’t question anything. Many years ago her husband had died while saving the lives of others during an accident at the plant. The Plant meant everything to him having provided his education, livelihood and the lifelong friendships the place had brought him, including and most importantly Nani. So Nani decided to pay back some of that love and did so, for the rest of her life!

      I guess it takes a Joan and a Nani, to create the conditions for a good job.

      Liked by 1 person

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