Tips for Lean Managers

Seek the Simple Solution from Many People

By Jon Miller Published on April 29th, 2007

There is an apparent conflict between two of the ten commandments of improvement that has been bothering me for a while. It is the kind of problem that goes away as soon as you stop thinking about it. But I think it may represent something that is at the root of the challenges many companies face in implementing Lean management, so I can’t stop.
The two particular commandments of kaizen are #4:”Go for the simple solution, not the perfect one” and #9 “Seek ideas from many people.”
Both of these are great ideas. The quick and dirty solution is often better than delayed perfection, if only for the fact that you can test the quick and dirty idea and learn from it right away. It also typically costs less money to do the simple thing. The other is looking for “wisdom of many rather than knowledge of the few” and reflects the bias of Lean towards empowering people who do the actual work to come up with solutions, rather than wait for specialist problem solvers.
The conflict is that I think the simple solution may be the one that does not involve getting ideas from many people, but to ask the expert. And the perfect solution in Lean enterprise terms is getting ideas from a broad range of people when solving problems, which is the right thing to do.
A recent example of the apparent conflict between these two great ideas was a layout project that was part of a series of kaizens. The simple solution would have been for the kaizen instructor to tell them “this is the correct layout option in this situation” and the perfect solution would have been to help them arrive at this answer on their own through a combination of Socratic questioning and framing the issue in a way that constrains the layout options they can pursue.
There are many simple solutions to common process problems. The expert, engineer or consultant is eager to give them. That may be the simple solution. Even managers and senior leaders of companies often fall into this pattern. That is often what they are paid to do.
Yet operational excellence is neither achieved nor sustained through dependence on experts, but rather by developing a community of scientists within an organization, to borrow words from Stephen Spear and Kent Bowen.
Nine plus four makes commandment #13: seek the simple solution from many people.

  1. Ron

    April 30, 2007 - 6:51 am

    Jon, if it were possible to meet Mr. Ohno what do you reckon he would tell you after hearing your concerns? And no I am not talking about in heaven or anything… I pray you live a long and happy life Jon! Just hypothetically speaking here.

  2. Jon Miller

    April 30, 2007 - 8:25 am

    He would probably tell me to get back to work. There would be quite a bit of yelling. If he had the answer, I doubt that he would give it directly. If he didn’t, he would make me “feel the squeeze” somehow (see chapter 28 of Workplace Management) and he would struggle with me to find the answer.

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