Knowing What I Know Now…

Danaher share priceThis week lean thinker, friend of Gemba Academy and American innovator Paul Akers shared an 11-minute video of an answer he gave to the question, “What would you do if starting over with lean, but knowing everything you know now?” Paul’s reflections include how much better he understands the 8 wastes and how he would be quicker to put in place tools such as kanban. Here is a link to that video on YouTube. I don’t own a factory like Paul does, but watching his video made me reflect and want to answer the question for myself.

If I was starting over with lean, knowing what I know now…

I would have purchased Danaher stock in 1993 when it was at a tiny fraction of what it is now. That is half a joke, since even knowing what I know now about lean and what it can do for a company’s value, there was no way of knowing only from a “lean knowledge” point of view that Danaher would be the company to truly use lean as a strategy for growth and profit. Also, the question is what I would do with my knowledge if I was starting now, so perhaps looking for the “next Danaher” to invest in is the correct answer.

But seriously, if I was starting my lean career now, I would spend significant time and a heavy dose of honesty in answering the question “What is my ultimate goal?” This question is the starting point of problem solving, hoshin planning, kaizen, kata, the PDCA cycle, which are all different names for the same thing. When I started my first lean business in 1998, the goal at first was to find one client, then ten, then thirty, keeping them happy and paying the bills. Within a few years, we had global ambitions, but in hindsight it’s hard to recall exactly how or from where or why. Because we could, I suppose. It was a good education and not a bad run of business, but as a pursuit of an ultimate goal, it was completely lacking. Growing a global consulting business was a means, not and end.

We are not taught to think of work as a means to life. The expression “work-life balance”, while well-intentioned, is revealing of the fact that in the West we have work and life at separate ends of the scale, needing to be balanced. In fact we should have life, with work providing income, meaning, opportunity for growth and learning, opportunity to make and strengthen social connections. However because the way we have designed work today makes sometimes unreasonable demands, we must make sacrifices in our life to accomplish work. The “balance” is really to rebalance in favor of life. Knowing what I know now about lean, my focus would be as much on removing muri, or overburden from both processes and the working lives of people, as on removing variation and waste from processes. The vast majority of lean is rework, meaning that lean involves fixing, redesigning, rebuilding broken processes, broken systems, broken businesses. When we work on removing unreasonable burden, we create value in both work and life.

Knowing what I know now, and starting over in my lean career, I would be fanatically insistent on getting the facts. It is far too easy to get caught up with strong beliefs, preconceived notions, personal missions and visions, without taking into account the brutal realities of what customers want, what the P&L looks like or even what metrics from the day-to-day processes are telling you. Getting a firm grip on the facts is boring, uncreative, uninspiring work. Not getting a firm grasp on the facts may feel more liberating but will eventually put you out of business. It’s ironic that while my consulting business was named “Gemba” because I supposedly believed strongly in the Toyota “management fact” principle, expressed variously as genchi genbutsu, go see or gemba-ism, there were so many times that I was unable or unwilling to see the facts or to insist on fact-based discussions.

The one thing that hindsight gives us is an appreciation of long-term thinking. In fact, acting for the long-term doesn’t require thinking, but faith and generosity. I have gained far more from the efforts, relationships and commitments to which I gave freely, expecting little or nothing in return, than from those whose fruits I was eager to harvest. Knowing what I know now, I would plant more trees and fewer cash crops, figuratively speaking.

Knowing what I know now, knowing when and how often I have failed to take good advice in the past, and more importantly knowing under what circumstances I am likely to do so again, if starting again in my lean career I would enlist the help of a coach who would give me the courage (or kick in the pants) to help me act on those things I know.

This all suggests something of the difference between knowledge and wisdom, but I’m not yet wise enough to know exactly what that is.

These reflections above are things that we can do regardless of how much we know or how much we have learned about lean. These are good practices regardless of whether we are just starting out or quite far along a lean journey. But perhaps your experience has been quite different. Knowing what you know now, what would you differently if starting out in lean?


  1. Kevin

    June 1, 2015 - 9:46 am

    Loved this post, perhaps because over the last several years I’ve also consciously evaluated and realigned my mindset. Everyone probably does it to some extent as they hit middle or especially later middle age.

    From a lean transformation standpoint I wish I would have understood the power of hoshin and hansei from the start, instead of simply rushing into tools. Years were wasted in some cases investing in activities that sounded great and potentially had value, but did not necessarily align with (or have sufficient relative prioritization) a long-term plan to create value. Resources consumed that created delays, resulting in lost value. This plays in to your point about the value of a lean coach.

    There are also aspects of the lean perspective on personal projects – primarily revolving around understanding and defining potential value before I went off to chase many shiny balls. But no regrets. I learned and grew.

  2. Rob Thompson

    June 3, 2015 - 4:47 am

    John Hunter recently explored the issue of Work-Life Balance here:

    John’s blog post is worth reading. It provides some great insights and mirrors what you have said in this article. As for answering the question, “what would you differently if starting out in lean?” I would spend at least five times longer in the Plan phase of PDCA. This is to ensure both the countermeasure and quality of the implementation will solve the problem. At the start of my career I was too eager jump into the Do phase. I did not spend enough time observing and understanding the situation to find the root cause. Why? Because it gave the impression of progress and I enjoyed it.

    I now know I cannot create the plan phase without observation at the gemba. And root causes of problems demand a deep observation at the gemba, gathering facts, discussing issues with operators and exploring the best countermeasures.

  3. Jon Miller

    June 3, 2015 - 9:37 pm

    Great observations Rob. I find that leaders don’t give lean teams enough make a thorough plan when starting out with lean. Part of this is the desire for fast results, building belief and momentum in lean, and the ever important sense of urgency. Another major reason is that traditional leaders have no idea how to make a plan, in terms of grasping the situation by going to the gemba, listening to people and getting the facts, as you pointed out.