A Spymaster’s Guide to Lean Thinking

A person works in intelligence told me a few things about that profession. Here is a summary of a few similarities between good spy craft and good business leadership that come with lean thinking.

Go to the gemba. Intelligence gathering happens by going out into the field. We can’t get to the truth only by sitting at our desk and looking at data on computer screen. For the best information, we need to go to the source. I found lean thinking in the insight, “Smart people become dumber with greater distance from the truth.” When analysts are promoted to managers they spend less time talking to the people who actually do the work of intelligence gathering and more time with people who supervise, summarize, spin and present information to policymakers. The same is true for the CEO, whether the information lives on the shop floor or the hospital floor.

Get the facts. The most reliable intelligence is gained directly. Consider all second-hand information to be somehow potentially compromised. Minimize translation, filtering, introducing bias. Jargon, or specialized vocabulary is essential for efficient communication and working within specialized fields, departments and teams. The leader must learn the language of the gemba, not impose their viewpoint and make the frontline information fit their jargon. The the leader’s interpretation of the situation ultimately suffers again from bias and wishful thinking, concocting facts to fit their preferred story. This causes not only the loss of money in business but the loss of lives in in geopolitics.

Respect your people. Some object to the expression “people are a company’s most valuable assets” because the term “asset” suggests a commodity or thing, rather than humanity. In the words of Eiji Toyoda, “People are the most important asset of the company and the determinant of the rise of fall of the company.” Arguments about nuances of the word “asset” aside, collaborators are indeed called assets in the world of espionage. The adage is, take good care of your assets well and their value will increase. It is much easier to build trust with potential assets if you speak their language, respect their customers and can communicate directly rather than through an interpreter who may have their own agenda. When people feel that we are being heard and understood, treated with respect, they are more likely to give details, bring us closer the truth of the situation, leading to actionable intelligence. On the other hand, when people feel that the listener is unwilling or unable to understand, less information is shared.

Get your hands dirty. Spies are rumored to get their hands dirty from time to time doing more than just gathering information. Continuous improvement is also about getting hands dirty doing and not just gathering and analyzing information.

In hindsight these similarities are not surprising, obvious even. Both espionage and lean thinking involve trying to improve outcomes by gathering information and engaging people.

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