Missing the Soil, or The Inadequacy of Our Lean Management Metaphors

lean leaf

The purpose of lean is to build an organization that creates value for people – its customers, employees, shareholders and community members – on a sustainable and long-term basis.

If we asked a farmer, “How do we grow something that provides value for us for many years?” he might advise us to plant an orchard and to keep the trees in it healthy. A competent farmer could further advise us on how exactly to do this. He wouldn’t spend all of his time talking about the latest tools, technologies, seeds and farming methods. He would probably start by asking to see the place the orchard will be planted, checking its soil.

A recent Scientific American article titled Missing the Soil for the Seeds in Cancer Research reminded me of the inadequacy of our lean management metaphors. Metaphors such as a machine, martial arts, a house, a sports team or the accurate but abstract “system” are just a few examples of how we attempt to understand and practice lean management. These metaphors don’t take soil sufficiently into account.

Just as we can miss the forest for the trees, the Scientific American article describes how most cancer research and almost all anti-cancer therapies, including chemotherapy and radiation “emphasizes the seeds and disregard the soil.” The focus is too much on the cancerous cell itself, and not enough on the surrounding tissue and how these affect the spread or defeat of the cancerous cells. As a result of this “disregard of the soil”, many therapies aimed at the bad cells can inadvertently damage or kill healthy tissue, and not enough therapies focus on strengthening the body’s ability to fight back or even prevent the illness.

Following the metaphor of a lean organization as a tree or even an orchard, on what parts are we putting our focus and what are we disregarding? The fruits (results)? The many leaves (idea generators) that produce the food for the tree? The branches (teams) large and small that support the leaves? The trunk (systems, standards, procedures) of the tree? Or better yet, the roots (customer relationships)? What about the soil? Dirt doesn’t get enough respect. Soil is a rich and complex world that contains microbes, decomposing matter, minerals, water, insects, animals, other plants and more. What is the “soil” into which the “seeds” of lean thinking, continuous improvement practices, and various lean tools and techniques are planted?

An organization’s soil could be said to include management mindsets and mental models; spoken and unspoken behavior norms; relationships with customers, suppliers and community; rewards, incentives and compensation systems; stories, memories, how lessons of the past have been learned, ignored, buried or forgotten; even people, systems, processes or rules that are “rocks” or make the soil unfit for growing a healthy tree and must be cleared first. In a word, we could say that soil is an organization’s culture.

One of my favorite Japanese haiku poems addresses the role of leaders:

Rather than a flower, you must become the soil that helps the flowers bloom.

All metaphors are inadequate, and not intended to be all-encompassing guides to putting lean into practice. A mature tree looks like a simple thing. Yet much of what it is and how it grew to maturity is not visible to us. Likewise lean may seem simple but making lean part of the culture is impossible without understanding the glorious complexity of the dirt that is a human organization. For this, the metaphor of the tree planted in soil seems better than most.