I’ve written before on the parallels between Taoism and TPS a.k.a. lean thinking. It is not surprising that we find influences from so-called Eastern philosophies, as Taiichi Ohno and the others framers the Toyota Way were were from that culture. Taoism is evident within TPS in how work is organized. The emphasis is on keeping things simple, being frugal, going with the flow of nature rather than against, and being effortless. This is in contrast to more rigid philosophies that complicate life with many rules and restrictions. Taoist leadership means being effective through humility, compassion, having the courage to advance as well as retreat, and giving credit to others. Taoism delves into respect for humanity.
There is a story of a traveling philosopher who saw an old farmer working hard in his field. The farmer used a vase to draw water from a well to water his fields. The traveler watched the farmer’s struggles and offered, “I know of a tool that will make your work much more efficient,” and proceeded to describe the contraption of a rope, pulley and bucket to draw water from the well. The farmer laughed, “It is not that I don’t know of this, I choose not to use it. I heard my master tell, ‘Machines lead to mechanical actions, and mechanical actions lead to machinations in my heart.'” The old farmer preferred to work by hand because he believed the wisdom that machines influence his actions, his thoughts and his character, in unwanted ways. By modern values, we may think the old farmer is stubborn, superstitious or even foolish for choosing not to use a technological invention that will make his work easier.
Master Zhuan, a.k.a. Zhuanzi, is the fourth century Chinese philosopher and one of the founders of Taoist thought. It was Zhuanzi who spoke the wisdom about machines. I believe it has deep relevance today for both how we practice lean thinking and in how we live our day-to-day lives. Let’s explore Zhuanzi’s words.
Where there are machines
People behave in mechanistic ways
When people behave mechanistically, thinking becomes mechanical
Within mechanistic hearts
There is no purity
Where there is no purity
There is no God
Where there is no God
That is not the Way
A simpler way to phrase this may be, “When we rely too much on technology, we lose some of our humanity, and this is not right.”
Machines have progressively enriched our lives for hundreds of years. Nearly every generation experiences some sort of technological advance that disrupts society for a period of time. In this digital age we are inviting machines to become the de facto social and financial interfaces with other humans. It is without doubt that this has changed how we communicate, how we act and how we think. As an example, social media, despite its benefits, allows us to say things to each other that we would never say face to face. We allow the technological innovation to draw us into unfamiliar ways of behaving, thinking, and existing in society. Whether or not we believe, as Zhuanzi warns, that this makes our spirits less pure, this is not the Way (Tao) of simple, humble, compassionate, effortless being.
If we replace the words “mechanical” and “machine” above with Lean, what would happen? Do “Lean tools” result in “lean actions” and “lean thoughts?” The practice of can certainly develop patterns of thought and behavior focused on serving others, preventing and solving problems. As a result of Lean, do we have hearts that are pure and inviting to the Spirit? Perhaps, but this depends on what we include in “Lean”. Like the old farmer in the story, does Lean represent an invention or tool that is rational, useful, bringing efficiency and productivity, but also threatens to make us lose appreciation for our work? When we adopt a new technology, or a methodology like Lean, without considering how it will affect the lives of humans around us, we risk trading some of our humanity for efficiency.
Perhaps Zhuanzi naively imagined an ideal world where people lived in mutual respect and harmony, free from technological innovations. But even 1700 years ago, his life in China was full of technical advances compared to his ancestors or even compared to neighboring countries. I take Zhuanzi’s words not to be a prohibition on machines or technological advances, but a warning against unthinking adoption of these advances, tools and methods that seem to make us more efficient. When we allow machines, innovations or Lean methods to speed up our lives, there are always unintended consequences that disturb harmony between people, and that is not the Way.