Lawrence M. Miller - Lean CoachWhen the Western mind encountered lean organizations such as Honda and Toyota, we overlaid our ways of thinking, the mechanics of our mind, onto those systems and reduced them to their component parts. It is the tendency of the Western mind to employ reductionism to explain the workings of systems. But, that is not the way of the Eastern mind.

Lean Metaphysics

Some companies have engaged in what they think are lean implementations by reducing lean to component parts and experimenting with one component over there, another over here, and a third somewhere else. That is guaranteed to fail. The very idea of reducing lean to its component parts fails to “get it.”

There are components to lean: just-in-time, continuous flow, quality detection systems, plant design, teams, information sharing, etc. But, there is also something that holds them together, something that is almost metaphysical, which I will all “Meta-Lean.” It is a Zen, a philosophy, a working of the mind that is distinctly different than the workings of the mind in traditional Western organizations. Meta-lean principles hold the parts together and enable them to work together in a dynamic that leads to self-correction and improvement.

I believe that the first principle of meta-lean is what I called in a previous book, The Unity Principle. Honda took this principle to heart and sought to apply it in their U.S. operations. It is simple, yet profound. Let me give an example:

The reductionist mind would view the human body as merely the sum of each of its subsystems. Yet, each of these subsystems contains no life unless completely integrated with the others. Only when the body is whole can we say that it is a human life. It is more than the sum of its parts. I think any scientist would agree that even after more than a thousand years of dissection and study of the human body, we truly do not understand the magic of its connections, its unity as a whole, which gives it intelligent life.

I will argue that lean culture, lean organizations, contain a similar mystery of life. Separate the parts and it becomes lifeless, unify the parts and a magical thing happens. It gains life as the parts interact and support one another.

The Unity of Social and Technical Systems

When I was last in Marysville, Ohio at the Honda assembly plant I also visited a supplier, Stanley, that produces headlight and taillight assemblies. The Stanley plant has no outgoing warehouse or storage area. Pallets of assembled head-lights or tail-lights go directly onto a truck. That truck moves every two hours to the Marysville plant. The “pile” of head-lights and tail-lights at Marysville is merely a two-hour pile. The truck must move every two hours. That, of course, is the just-in-time work flow. However, that is only subsystem of the whole organic system.

Associates on the line have a phone at their work station. When they find one… I repeat… ONE bad part, they pick up the phone that rings in quality assurance. A quality assurance associated immediately answers the phone. He then comes out and picks up the part. He returns to his desk and picks up a second phone. That phone rings at the supplier. The suppliers is informed of the defective part and the supplier must get back within one hour to explain what he is doing to correct the defect that was created only hours ago. Remember the two hour pile!

Notice that this human feedback loop involved only first level hourly associates. No manager got in the way to slow it down. No meetings were called. No studies made or reports written. The hourly associates were trusted to transfer information through the artificial walls of legal company boundaries that become irrelevant in a lean system.

The immediate feedback loop conducted entirely at the first level is employee empowerment, engagement, trust. Without this, the two hour just-in-time process becomes impossible. One system is entirely dependent on the other… just as in the human body.

Thinking that Unites and Thinking that Divides

In the culture of the Lakota Sioux the hoop, the circle, has sacred significance. Kevin Locke

Kevin Locke

Kevin Locke, Lakota Sioux Hoop Dancer

And, in the world of the Sioux, they built round homes, organized them into circles, danced in circles (much easier!) and the hoop, which has no beginning and no end, symbolizes the unity of all human beings, people and animals, earth and sky, in one organic whole created not by man, but by the Great Spirit. You may have heard the phrase “Indian giver”, someone who gives and then takes back. This misunderstanding comes from the fact that Native Americans had great difficulty understanding the idea that you “owned” a piece of property. How could something that was created millions of years ago and is eternal belong to someone who will last only an instant? The land will soon own you, not the other way around, and you will own nothing but your soul.

Westerners are obsessed with property lines, ownership, divisions between things. We employ armies of lawyers to argue over who owns what and where the lines of squares are drawn. Much of it is cultural insanity that adds no value but consumes energy.

We love to organize people into two separate categories. In the recent election campaigns we had the absurdity of the population being simplistically divided into “makers” and “takers”, “producers” and “mouchers.” It is an insane example of square thinking. Yesterday, I read that John Sununu, former Governor of New Hamphshire, weeks after the election was explaining the Obama victory by the dominance of takers over makers. The irony is that John Sununu has spent his entire career in the employ of government, taking from the people, never having started a private company or managed a productive enterprise in the private world. Yet, it is comfortable and an easy explanation to divide the population of the United States into those who take versus those who make. Nothing is so simple and the nonsense of these false divisions (and there are many) are destructive of the unity of the nation.

Divisive thinking tears apart the unity of the whole. Every genuinely great leader sought to unify people in common purpose. Every general of every victorious army understood that the army had to act in unison, marching together and claiming victory together. A divided army is easily defeated.

The sickness in many of our organizations is a sickness of division. We create compensation systems that separate and divide rather than unite. We create different forms of dress, offices, buildings and symbols that separate people into those who do labor and those who make decisions.

Lean culture and management requires the destruction of divisions. There is no division of thinkers/deciders and doers/order takers. Every associate is a thinker and every one a decision maker. Every member of the organization should be rewarded based on the success of the whole. Symbols such as the different dress codes or uniforms should be abolished because they inherently imply divisions of class.

The lean mind does not see divisions created by lawyers in the form of corporate walls. The flow of the work process must flow through the division of legal walls as if they do not exist. They are irrelevant to the end user of any product. Lean is like the stream flowing from the top of the mountain to the sea in one continuous motion. The flow of the stream is not interrupted by legal property boundaries and does not wait for management decision making.

Until the leaders of the organization have understood the power of unity over division and have meditated on the creation of unity within their organization and the unity of flow through all the walls and silos of departments or companies, you have not adopted lean culture or thinking.

The idea of the Unity Principle is simple. The idea of whole-systems is simple. Yet, putting these ideas into practice is not simple and requires dedicated effort.