Tips for Lean Managers

Being an Improvement Agnostic

By Jon Miller Published on December 27th, 2006

A while ago my colleague and I were doing our best imitations of slick salesmen in front of a group of leaders from a small, local manufacturing firm. We were fired up after a tour of their factory, confident that space could be cut to a third and productivity doubled with some quick application of Lean manufacturing principles. At the end of our presentation their President raised some typical objections.
“If what you say is really true, would you be willing to work for a percentage of the savings you help us achieve?”
To his surprise, we nodded our heads and said we would be happy to put it in writing. One of the Directors who had more experience in Lean manufacturing and what it could achieve realized that the President was about to overpay for Lean consulting and training services, and quickly change the topic.
We soon had all of the heads in the room nodding up and down in assent with what we were proposing, except the President. He was skeptical of the results we said Lean manufacturing could help them accomplish at their company. He had heard similar claims from other vendors hawking ERP, CRM, and Six Sigma.
“It’s not like you are agnostic.” He said to us.
The statement floored me. Clearly we had failed to communicate the essence of what we do, for this person believed that ERP, CRM, Six Sigma and Lean manufacturing were all more or less the same type of investment in his business.
What would you like for lunch: sliced pineapple, a raisin, chicken cordon bleu or a tuna sandwich? Where does a salesman go from a non sequitur like that? We wrapped things up as smoothly as we could and headed for greener pastures.
For many the term “agnostic” is a step away from “atheist” and a dirty word if you are religious.
An agnostic is a person who questions religious or spiritual beliefs on the basis that God is unknown and unknowable, and the agnostic does not lay claim to a particular system of belief for this reason.
While a believer will say “there is a God” and an atheist will say “there is no God” the agnostic will say “I don’t know if there is or not”. The common perception of the religious agnostic is that because it is impossible to know, the agnostic chooses not to believe. In fact, agnosticism is a system of belief of a kind. Much like the scientific method, the agnostic mind holds that Truth is unknown and unknowable, except what has been demonstrated through experience.
Professor Thomas Huxley is credited with coining this term. In his words:
“In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable”
I have no certain conclusions Lean manufacturing is “the way”, except through direct experience. It would be foolish of me to claim that Lean manufacturing should come before any of the other “beliefs” such as ERP, CRM or Six Sigma without first seeing what an organization needs most and understanding the available solutions. So perhaps the President had a point in questioning my improvement agnosticism.
Being an improvement agnostic means not holding to a particular system of belief too strongly if it has not been demonstrated or if they are not demonstrable. Test the null hypothesis, in other words. Follow reason to its natural conclusion, regardless of what we want to believe as fans of kaizen and the Toyota Production System.
I don’t know that there is a perfect process, or that we can ever know the perfect process. I have a strong hunch that it does not exist today (except perhaps in nature) and that I may never see it. I don’t have an unshakable faith that Lean manufacturing works, only belief from demonstrated experience.
Another improvement approach may work better or be more appropriate, as we’ve experienced that certain organizations are not ready for Lean transformation without some basic organizational development. If it improves safety, quality, delivery and cost it’s all kaizen as far as I am concerned. That’s as close as I will come today to being an improvement agnostic.

  1. Jon Miller

    December 29, 2006 - 3:59 pm

    Thanks Kevin. You went one better with yours.

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