Lean Thinking and The Little Prince

By Jon Miller Published on September 28th, 2010

the little prince exupery.JPGSometimes life feels as hard as passing an elephant through a boa constrictor. French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900 – 1944) left us with a charming novella, The Little Prince. Perhaps opening this book again was just the luck of the draw, some subconscious reminder that this small book contained encouragement, or just a habit of seeing hints on continuous improvement everywhere, but it seems there is more than a small amount of lean thinking within The Little Prince.
It is tempting to imagine that certain leaders at Toyota read and found inspiration in The Little Prince some sixty years ago. There are some beautiful passages and deep thoughts within The Little Prince, as well many clever and cutting criticism of modern management. For example, we learn that a discovery must be dressed up in a way that the viewer will understand and accept it, that sprouts from a bad seed must be destroyed as soon as they are recognized, and that it is important to clean out our volcanoes, no matter how small.
Upon visiting a small planet the little prince meets a businessman who is engrossed in counting the stars he believes he owns. His purpose in owning these stars is to buy more stars. Using the wisdom of a child, Exupery exposes the folly of making money for the purpose of making money:

“I myself own a flower,” he continued his conversation with the businessman, “which I water every day. I own three volcanoes, which I clean out every week (for I also clean out the one that is extinct; one never knows). It is of some use to my volcanoes, and it is of some use to my flower, that I own them. But you are of no use to the stars…”

The little prince concludes that since the businessman cannot maintain the stars or be of use to them he cannot be the owner of the stars. This replacement of the definition of ownership from “right” to “responsibility” has direct parallels to the ownership of authority be leaders within a lean organization.
The little prince meets a fox at one point in the story and tames the animal. The fox tells him:

You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.

The fox’s explains that “to tame is to establish ties” between human and fox or human and flower. We can extend this human to human. As taming includes removing wild and free aspects from a creature or a system, we can view taming as a metaphor for much of lean management. Out of control processes are brought in control, dysfunctional organizations are redesigned, business relationships are redefined. On a broader level human progress involves taming through science, industry and mastery over nature, however illusory that may be. Whether to feed the beast that we tamed lest it turn on us, or to protect it from other wild ones, we are responsible for the consequences of the systems we disturb.
On yet another planet the little prince meets a geographer on one of the planets he visits, but finding that the wise man cannot tell him of any town or river or any geographic feature of his world, exclaims, “But you are a geographer!” The geographer schools the young prince on the traditional division of labor between knowledge workers and manual laborers:

“Exactly,” the geographer said. “But I am not an explorer. I haven’t a single explorer on my planet. It is not the geographer who goes out to count the
towns, the rivers, the mountains, the seas, the oceans, and the deserts. The
geographer is much too important to go loafing about. He does not leave his
desk. But he receives the explorers in his study. He asks them questions, and
he notes down what they recall of their travels. And if the recollections of any
one among them seem interesting to him, the geographer orders an inquiry
into that explorer’s moral character.”

This is a comical exchange but also insightful, revealing that too often the findings and reports from the front lines are not taken seriously due to biases on the part of those sitting at the desk. The geographer goes on to explain:

“Then, when the moral character of the explorer is shown to
be good, an inquiry is ordered into his discovery.”
“One goes to see it?”
“No. That would be too complicated. But one requires the explorer to furnish
proofs. For example, if the discovery in question is that of a large mountain,
one requires that large stones be brought back from it.”

Going to see it would be too complicated. That just about summarizes the major failing of problem solving approaches by senior management today. What’s so hard about going to see, one might wonder. It is the heart more than the feet or the eyes, we learn, that is reluctant. A fox tells the little prince his secret:

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Beyond The Little Prince there is evidence of lean thinking in the writing of Exupery. The following quote speaks to the importance of placing people at the center of progress, and should be remembered by all who would use lean thinking to further progress:

Transport of the mails, transport of the human voice, transport of flickering pictures-in this century as in others our highest accomplishments still have the single aim of bringing men together.

We can borrow his words also for the purpose of engaging people in continuous improvement. The following speaks elegantly to the issue of bringing people together to a common vision or purpose rather than micromanaging their tasks:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

One definition of lean includes the pursuit of perfection and the removal of waste, defined as whatever does not add value to the customer. By understanding this we all have the potential to be designers of our work, our lives and how we serve. As Exupery puts it:

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

And finally, on taking action, he writes:

The time for action is now. It’s never too late to do something.

Sometimes our journeys, be they in lean or in life, seem like a vast desert stretching out ahead of us. In times like these these words written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery are encouraging:

“What makes the desert beautiful,” said the little prince, “is that somewhere it hides a well…”

  1. Raluca Florea

    September 28, 2010 - 10:29 pm

    Hi Jon,
    One of my favourite pieces of work- this book.
    Nice sharing it through “Lean” lens :), actually any common sense or deep reasoning usually leads to lean core ideas. Which is probably only natural philosophy which embedded on artificial structures – traditional companies- is tending to transform them to natural structures – correlated social organisms- self conducting, pursuing adaptation for survival.
    In this case it helps me you choose the right phrases from Exupery to define some lean core ideas.
    Raluca Florea

  2. Frenchie

    September 29, 2010 - 1:13 am

    Hi Jon,
    I believe that the sentence
    “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
    could be a good definition of lean thinking. Your comparison between this novella and lean is just wonderful.
    Antoine de Saint Exupéry was an aviator in airmails and I’d like to think that he wants to link people during his life, he was a wise person, but in action. Just as we have to be in a lean transformation I think.
    Your posts are always an inspiration source for me in my hard task of lean change.
    Regards from France.

  3. Robert

    September 29, 2010 - 3:38 am

    “If someone wants a sheep, then that means that he exists.”
    (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
    One of my favourite books with everlasting messages!

  4. John Santomer

    September 29, 2010 - 8:09 am

    Dear Jon,
    Most of the times it is harder to “wake up” anyone who is pretending to be asleep. It is most difficult to explain to an adult what he already knows.
    As it is also difficult to make a small person swallow medicine without “sugar coating” its real flavor – even if it means this will save his own life from imminent death. All true! And this is a really lean twist to the phrase, “ What is essential is invisible to the naked eye.”

  5. Ronak

    September 29, 2010 - 10:09 pm

    Hi Jon, really a good post. I will go today and buy this book to read it with a lean lens.

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