Kaizen Means Thinking “Now Things are the Worst Ever”

There has been a lot of discussion about “failing to become Lean” on blogs, in newsgroups and in books lately. Reading press releases and financial statements of many less-than-truly-Lean companies, they would like the analysts and shareholder to think that Lean is doing good things for their share price. Yet there is a concern with the lack of success.
On Joe Ely’s Learning About Lean blog there is a good post asking why people observe but fail to see. He points out that it goes back to humility, and being willing to admit ignorance and learn.
A blog entry by Bill Waddell cites a 98% failure rate of Lean efforts and points out the current lack of Lean marketing, Lean accounting and Lean management tools and practices. He also posts a helpful follow up to this article.
“Lean failures” is a troubling pairing of words. What does it really mean? How do you know you are Lean? Does it show up in your stock price? Is it your growth, cash flow or profitability? I would argue that these things are affected by how “Lean” you are, but they are affected as much by other factors as well, often outside the control of the people in the organization.
You are Lean when you see waste everywhere. You are Lean when you recognize how far you have come but how much furtheryou have to go. Lean is a culture change, a shift in how people think about their work. You are Lean when you embrace failure, without defeat.
Failure is viewed as a bad thing. There is the well-intentioned expression “failure is not an option.” I would like to reopen the failure option. That’s a bit of humor. To be serious, failure is essential to kaizen. Without failure you have no opportunity to learn how to solve problems and prevent future reocurrence.
Certainly failure with a capital F (to be unable to continue existing profitably) is to be avoided. That is the whole point of kaizen, and “becoming Lean” is all about creating a culture that promotes sustainable reduction of cost. But failures in the process of becoming Lean are necessary. Without them we could not succeed. You can’t simply overlay the Toyota management system on top of your company, even if you could capture the essence and succeed at such a feat. You need to try, fail and learn from your failures to build your own Lean system based on the best available knowledge and tools (which today we happens to find mostly at Toyota).
Of the many lessons I was fortunate to learn from my Japanese teachers, one of my favorites is “now things are the worst ever”. At the end of a hard week of kaizen, after giving praise to the kaizen team for the long hours and teamwork, the consultant concluded “You must think that “right now” things are the worst ever.” There were puzzled looks and even some nervous laughter from the audience. Didn’t we hire this expensive Japanese consultant to make things better? Why is he telling us that after a week, we must think that things are the worst ever?
Adults don’t learn new behaviors by repeated use of a Lean tool. Adults learn through failure, asking “why” each time and finding how to make the tool work or to create new tools that do work for their particular situation. In order to do kaizen and keep working towards becoming Lean, you need everyone to think “The current situation is the worst. I can’t stand it. I need to make it better.” This is a significant culture change for most of us.