Tips for Lean Managers

Lay First the Foundation of Humility

By Jon Miller Published on January 17th, 2008

I came across this great quote by St. Augustine.

Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.

These words work on many levels.
When corporate board rooms far removed from the day to day realities of the gemba talk of operational excellence, they may wish to rise but will struggle or fail to achieve sustained performance gains. They need to begin by descending to their places of business where the seemingly mundane tasks are performed: the practice Toyota calls genchi genbutsu.
When an ambitious airframe manufacturer wishes to soar above the competition by cleverly sending out nearly all complex manufacturing work to their suppliers, they will struggle until they descend to the planning rooms of the first tier suppliers, and visit the second and third tier suppliers to see whether their plans will in fact pan out. This requires a foundation of humility.
When managers or lean consultants wish to raise the performance of a production line, they need to begin by descending from dreams to the facts, and start by scrubbing the machines, tools and floors clean and removing all obstacles to a safe workplace.
What are we here to do? Serve others. Why? Because none of us are better or more important than others. That’s all there is to it. Humility.

  1. Erik

    January 18, 2008 - 7:24 am

    I think this not only means physically descending from the oak paneled board room to the manufacturing floor, but also spiritually descending from the “Father knows best, do as I say.” to the “What do you think?” role. Too many presidents and VP’s that I have worked with believe that their role as an officer gives them the ability (and the duty) to know everything and never be wrong.
    Taiichi Ohno wrote about sakkaku and admitting when you are wrong. Similarly, Masaaki Imai said, “Progress is impossible without the ability to admit mistakes.”
    Clearly they both understood what St. Augustine was getting at. My question is: why do so many business leaders fail in this understanding?

  2. Jon Miller

    January 22, 2008 - 12:16 am

    Yes, you make a good point Erik.
    Why do business leaders tend to fail at this?
    Ironically, the higher up you go in an organization there’s generally more things you need to know about, and you know less about any one thing. So it’s vitally important to be curious and open to learning.

  3. Mahendiran Selvaraj

    September 18, 2009 - 6:39 am

    Don’t you think “not having humility” among leaders is one of the reasons lean transformations do not get the necessary support and fail?

  4. Jon Miller

    September 22, 2009 - 4:41 pm

    Hi Mahendiran,
    I agree that lack of humility can seriously hurt the chances of a sustained transformation. It takes not only humility but courage for a leader to admit that they don’t have the answers, to ask front line workers how things really are, and commit to a change whose outcome they can’t control. Perhaps if we repackage “humility” as “courage” more leaders would embrace it…

  5. Kurt

    September 23, 2009 - 7:45 am

    While leadership humility is the topic, there also needs to be humility on the people performing the tasks. Within the work teams, there needs to be humility to open each others potential. As superiors engage, there needs to be humility to accept all thoughts. This is a double edged sword.

  6. Jose

    November 27, 2009 - 12:21 am

    Congratulations. Only a very humble person could write this post; I like it very much. It´s seen you have a lot of experience at shop floor and, perhaps, a lot more in the planification and support office. I think it´s very interesting for me to share it with my readers. May I translate your post to spanish?, just as other ocasions.

  7. Jon Miller

    November 27, 2009 - 5:13 am

    Hi Jose
    Thanks for asking. Please feel free to translate and share.

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