Lean Lessons from a Do-Nothing Scholar-Bureaucrat

The words of the fourth century Taoist philosopher Zhuanzi led to a previous article about Lean thinking and respect for humanity. Another piece of writing attributed to him is titled Geng Sang Chu. It tells the story of a disciple of Lao Tzu and offers a few Lean lessons.

Geng Sang Chu was appointed scholar-bureaucrat to oversee a remote region in China. People grumbled that the new official didn’t seem to do much. He released from service the clever people around him. His choice of companions was odd. He kept out of sight. But after three years the harvests were good, the local farmers prospered and the people praised Geng Sang Chu, saying, “We are fortunate to have such a man overseeing us,” and revered him as a sage. When Geng Sang Chu heard about what the people were saying, his response was

吾日計之而不足、歳計之而有余

This translates as

By a day’s reckoning I fall short, by a year’s accounting there is abundance.

To the villagers, the scholar-bureaucrat seemed to do nothing. He delivered no big projects, did nothing to call attention to himself. Measured by daily results, he was a failure. It was only after a few years had passed that people saw the results of his leadership.

Don’t Tamper with the System

It is a classic Taoist worldview that the highest virtue is doing nothing to get in the way of the natural order of things. The scholar-bureaucrat who governs least governs best. We find a similar Lean thought in Dr. Deming’s advice when a system is functioning, it is best not to tamper with it. When a leader thinks their actions resulted in good results, it often a combination of luck and the results from efforts of their predecessors. Worse, they could attempt to “correct” a situation arises from common cause variation. A farmer knows better than anyone that crops require time to grow. What can one scholar-bureaucrat do to make an impact on the seasonal cycle of planting and harvesting, other than to avoid causing burden and distractions for the people doing the work?

Think Long-term

One element of Lean that is very underdeveloped or even forgotten in many organizations is long-term thinking. This has less to do with Lean and more to do with the nature of humanity. Humans do not think long-term because we can an afford not to. Long-term thinking is not necessary for survival on a day-to-day basis. For the majority of homo sapiens’ existence, it was essential to pay attention to immediate needs and threats. When the long-term rewards are not visible, we may pursue short-term rewards even at the cost of long-term health, long-term relationships, and financial well-being. This question of long-term versus short-term exist as a practical problem that every organization faces at some point on their Lean journey. Should we ignore the small safety risk because there are other priorities? Should we reduce our CI and training budget until profitability improves? Should we tell the operator not to stop the line and to sort out the defects later? How does our system punish or reward short-term and long-term thinking?

Good Process, Good Results

Another key idea for the Lean thinker is that good processes deliver good results. Good results without good processes is luck at best and not sustainable. Both process and result are important and must be measured. It is far easier to measure results than to measure processes. Results are static, final, and there are only a small handful that matter to most organizations. Process measurements on the other hand are dynamic, provisional, and quite numerous. Most organizations mostly measure the wrong things. Measuring the right thing at the time can result in abundance. This requires understanding cause and effect, how the present affects the future.

When and What to Measure

When do small daily efforts, bring non-linear improvements over time? Whenever small inputs have but passive but compounding effects, we should do “a year’s accounting” but not tamper with or force the system to do more on a day-to-day basis. Examples include compound interest, continuous improvement, building trust through consistency and reliability in word and deed, catching small errors and unsafe conditions, planting seeds.

When do small daily efforts result in linear improvements? Examples include learning a new language, forming a new habit, pulling the weeds from our fields, things that require repetition to maintain. It is important in these cases to measure both the daily effort, so that we don’t let the weeds grow, and to look back after a year to reflect on progress. Judged daily, we fall short of expectations. Judged after a year of growth, we surprise ourselves.

When do small daily efforts bring worse results over a longer period? This happens when demanding results today causes people to forget about the big picture, tamper with the system and suffer long-term losses in customer relationships. Examples include filling the shelves with inventory to meet cost absorption or efficiency quotas, cutting corners on quality, and making the numbers look good for the quarterly financial report. While these “results metrics” are helpful for yearly accounting they can be deadly when used for short-term accounting.

When should we pay the most attention to the “day’s accounting”? Scholar-officials benefited the most from following the Taoist leadership approach when the Mongols weren’t invading, when the Yangtze wasn’t flooding the land and when the overtaxed peasants weren’t rebelling. These situations called for a different style of leadership than Taoist do-nothing. Likewise, when a business is rapidly losing customers, losing money or running out of cash, leaders need to make time-critical changes to confront and contain the threat. The “day’s accounting” becomes the most important to stabilize and survive the day before returning to long-term thinking.

A Good Leader is Nowhere to be Found

In another classic Taoist response, Geng Sang Chu says in reaction to the news that the people were praising him, “I’m not such a good leader if people still notice me.” Scholar-bureaucrats studied, passed examinations and were appointed by the emperor. They didn’t need to pander to an electorate or to shareholders. They did not crave attention. To Taoists, a good leader was one who was nowhere to be found. We would all be so fortunate to have leaders about whom we could say, “Things are a lot better off now than three years ago. I can’t quite put a finger on what they did, but it seems we have a good leader.”

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