Tips for Lean Managers

Where Old Dogmas Go to Die

By Jon Miller Updated on May 22nd, 2017

The death of dogma is the birth of morality.

That’s a bit of winning 18th century philosophy from Immanuel “Never Say” Kant. Morality is the knowing of right from wrong at the level of truth. Dogma is personal opinion or belief, often considered unquestionable. Dogmas thrive in dark, sealed and warm places such as the mind. Dogmas don’t like to be challenged, tested or exposed to their opposites. Even those of us who reckon our minds are bright, open and breezy can still harbor dogmas. Dogmas die hard. We have to help them along in most cases.

Those of us who by occupation coax people to the gemba can tell many stories of strongly held beliefs falling away when confronted with reality. Dogmas cannot survive in the face of facts. That is why so much of lean involves systems to expose problems, the habit to “go see” on the gemba, confront them through the 5 why process, involve all people in problem solving and leading by example by going again to confirm that countermeasures were effective.

One of Kant’s ideas was that all objects which our minds can think about must conform to how we think. It is necessary to confront what we perceive through our preconceived notions in order to comprehend reality. This was part of his critique of pure reason. He said, “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.” Kant argued that experience alone will be purely subjective if it is not framed through pure reason, and likewise using reason without applying it to experience leads to misconceptions.

What this means for change agents is that we need a model and framework for excellence with which to go see reality, but that these models are useless without being tested and refined through experience. Only through repeated exposure to the gemba do we prevent our mental models from becoming dogmas, and instead convert them to morality. Anyone who has tested a hypothesis knows exactly what Kant is talking about. Continuous improvement is all about positing that method A and method B have no statistically discernible difference in performance, and then attempting to disprove this null hypothesis. Yet does the scientific method, confronting dogma with facts, always yield morality?

How do we reconcile science and progress through experience and reason with morality, that which is good for people? In the lean philosophy we say that there are two parts: continuous improvement and respect for people. What did Kant have to say about respect for people part of lean?

In Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant wrote:

Everything has either a price or a dignity. Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity. But that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself does not have mere relative worth, i.e., price, but an intrinsic worth, i.e., a dignity.

Price is subject to continuous improvement through the reduction of cost. In this way we increase value. People, on the other hand, must at the very least maintain a level of human dignity through this process of creating value. The profit motive running unchecked results in cuts to cost that remove value and erode the dignity of people. People use their minds to create and deliver goods and services, and to continuously improve them, and to be rewarded by customers with prosperity in exchange. But people are not merely means and profit the end. Delivering quality at a fair price should lead to human dignity. The process of making profits is the means, dignity and respect for people are the end. The Essential Kant teaches this, and belongs in the reading list of any lean leader with ambitions beyond the bottom line.

The gemba is the place where people do the work that customers value. The gemba may also be the point at which we interface directly with these customer. It is always a fine place to sacrifice dogmas in the name of increasing human dignity. Tomorrow is day 8 on a 10-day trip to various places that are my gemba, and a few more dogmas must die before I can go home…

  1. David Moles

    May 16, 2010 - 9:30 pm

    Or, as William S. Burroughs put it: “There are no honourable bargains involving the exchange of qualitative merchandise, like souls, for quantitative merchandise, like time and money.”

  2. John Santomer

    May 17, 2010 - 5:06 am

    Dear Jon,
    Well said, again I am standing and clapping my hands out like crazy…yet another mind stirring post!

  3. Ton Bil from Utrecht (NL)

    May 18, 2010 - 1:55 am

    Dignity – in my view – extends the boundary of humanity. All sentient beings… Pieces of art… And old piece of paper that Immanuel Kant has scribble on… A cucumber that has come to us through the labour of many people, and by a growing process that no human fully understands… Even a dinosaur skull that has traveled through the aeons… So much that is irreplacable, irreducible, worthy in it’s own right. Tensions while acting, living, doing business are inevitable. That makes “acting moraly” such an intriguing and difficult concept, bigger than reading all of Kant’s work. Thanks for your strong input, Jon.

  4. John Hunter

    May 18, 2010 - 2:46 pm

    Based on the title I thought you were going to say, business schools šŸ™‚

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