The Harmony of Discipline and Creativity

“Creativity and discipline go hand in hand.” So said best-selling author and business guru Jim Collins during an interview in the April 2009 issue of Inc. magazine. These words resonate and bounce around in the back of my head. I work with some extremely creative people and a few highly disciplined ones. Both in running a business and in helping others to run theirs better, the two poles of creativity and discipline seem to be either completely out of balance or in constant threat of conflict. What we need is harmony between discipline and creativity.

In the TPS we may have a model for this harmony of discipline and creativity. Take for example standard work and kaizen. Taiichi Ohno himself said you can’t have the latter without the former, and you haven’t really done kaizen until you have documented the new standard work. Standard work provides a baseline process for examination and redesign and kaizen reinvents that standard work. Standard work and the difficulty in following it perfectly every single time challenges people to do kaizen. Discipline inspires creativity. Just as necessity can be the mother of invention, we create because we are challenge or moved in some way.

For most of us it is clear as day: creativity is good, discipline is bad. For athletes, soldiers or teachers discipline may not be bad but as a general rule society rewards and respects great creativity before great discipline. This may be due to our education or the work environments we find ourselves in. There is a misconception that discipline means command and control, bureaucracy and boredom while creativity means freedom, possibilities and fun. Neither is completely true. In fact if someone were described as being “extremely creative” what would you think? Many times this is a euphemism for something not completely benign. And someone who is “extremely disciplined” may not always inspire envy, but they always inspire admiration and respect.

The root of this tension may be that while discipline is extremely easy to enforce externally on others, it is almost impossible to enforce creativity on others. While “letting go” can lead to high creativity, it can also mean a total loss of discipline and resulting personal disaster. We need harmony between discipline and creativity. Another important and related pairing is freedom versus responsibility. The United States is a nation built on freedoms and liberties, highly individual ones. Although we may speak of the civic duties we must bear as the price of liberty, too often these are much more abstract when compared to the individual liberties we enjoy. Here again an imbalance between creativity and freedom with discipline and responsibility needs to be corrected in order for us to enjoy a harmonious society.

There is much more to this topic and how it ties in deeply how we practice lean thinking and lean management but enough for today.

Jim Collins quote goodness

Reading over the Jim Collins interview again looking for more insight on the idea of the harmony of discipline and creativity, instead I found several quotes that could have come from a lean thinking textbook. He said about being an entrepreneur, “It’s not about temperament or personality. It’s about action.” In other words, it’s not who you are (or even who you know) it’s about what you do. The TPS is practice, not theory.

On challenge

I think we need to have absolute faith in our ability to deal with whatever is thrown at us. And we need to have a complete, realistic paranoia that a lot can be thrown at us. It’s our ability to put those two contradictory ideas together: we need to be prepared for what we can’t predict and, at the same time, have this total, unwavering faith that we will find a way to deal with it all.

On people

Do you have a culture of people who A. share a set of values, B. have very clear responsibilities, and C. perform?

It’s stunning to realize but most organizations I have witnesses are C-B-A in priority, not A-B-C. Many speak of shared corporate values but are happy enough with just C-B. And too many are solely focused on C… Performance is important of course but shared values and accepted responsibilities are what make sustained performance possible.

On entrepreneurship today

There has been a big shift away from seeing entrepreneurship as the creation of a better mousetrap to viewing it as the development of a better process.

Hey, he’s talking about kaizen!

Isn’t it much more important to create a better process that will produce many mousetraps over time?

Well, that depends on how many mousetraps the customer wants, Mr. Collins. We wouldn’t want to overproduce, or overdesign the process.

On leadership

If I put a gun to your head, I can get you to do a lot of things. It means I have power. It doesn’t mean I’ve led. In business, we largely have power, not leadership.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you, Mr. Collins…

Asked what he has learned from all of his so-called “turbulence research” on the rise and fall of organization of the past few decades, Jim Collins admitted, “I’ve become a total paranoid, neurotic freak.” He keeps one year’s operating capital budget as cash in the bank and runs a fiscally tight ship so that he could operate one year without revenue if necessary. He wants to be in a position where he can say, “If we dont’ get a penny for three years, we’ll be fine.” Cash is king, think long-term and always run to stay ahead of whatever you can’t see that is chasing you: these two are principles that make and keep an organization lean.

And the quote that started it all:

You cannot build a movement without having a strong, strategically sound business underneath, held together by a really effective set of processes and values. Those mechanisms enhance the discipline of what you’re doing and therefore enhance the creativity. Creativity and discipline go hand in hand.