7 Amish Habits to Make You Lean and Wealthy

An article ran one week ago in the Seattle Times, titled “The frugal Amish know about wealth”. The Amish Mennonites are a subgroup of Protestant Christians mostly living in rural communities in parts of USA and Canda. They are known for their simple living, plain dress and shunning of most things modern. Had my ancestors chosen not to shun some of those same modern conveniences a few generations ago, I too may have been Amish. For this reason I have always respected the Amish and their commitment to values and community.

The article begins by saying that many Amish had “weathered the recession far better than most other Americans” due to their frugality, lifestyle, and philosophy that does not drive them even in good times to buy things they don’t need or can’t afford. The Amish habits listed in the article sound very much like lean management principles:

1. Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without. The Amish don’t believe in trading up or replacing something that still has useful life left in it. This follows the lean principle of “use your wits, not your wallet” to fix or improve a process or piece of equipment many times before buying a replacement.

2. Don’t work for a dead horse. While most of us non-Amish are busy beating our dead horses, the Amish are paying off their debts on time every month and keeping any credit strictly short-term, not taking the risk that the horse will die before they finish paying for it. The avoidance of long-term credit suits the simple and local model of Amish business, but may be harder to emulate for corporations who require larger investments to grow. But this is also a lean principle because the inexpensive, general purpose asset that is dedicated to a low-speed flow process pays off much quicker than the expensive, fast, all-purpose asset which demands utilization and drives overproduction, the mother of all wastes.

3. More is caught than taught. The Amish do not explicitly teach their children about being frugal. Instead it is “absorbed by being in the culture” as parents show that they “use it up, wear it out” and children teach each other to share what they have. This is remarkably like comments from Toyota people that the TPS is “in the air” and absorbed by demonstration and observation, less direct teaching. Most likely both are necessary in the modern business world and outside of the simple Amish life, but if it is true that more is caught than taught it critical to lead by example.

4. Simpler often translates to cheaper. The indulgences of Amish mentioned in the article include ice cream, salad dressing or Ritz crackers, and even these are seldom enjoyed. Simple pleasures are the best. So are simple measures, simple processes and simple rules – the stuff lean systems are made of.

5. You don’t have to buy something new to buy something good. The Amish “have no problem buying used as long as it gets the job done.” When the purpose is clear (getting the job done) then the means to accomplish it also becomes clear. In lean management terms this is policy deployment a.k.a. hoshin kanri, where the overall purpose is clear and not negotiable, objectives are defined together and many means to achieve them are tried out. In some ways, the entire lean management system is something second hand. Only those who think they are smarter than the Amish pay for a brand new system rather than borrowing from TPS and buying used and well-worn methodologies.

6. Get value. The Amish carpenter will pay $100 for a hammer that will get the job done better. Cheaper is not always better. I know of entire purchasing departments that need to be shipped to Amish country for a few months of “caught and taught” learning about getting value from their supply chains.

I was fortunate to be given a job with the Amish during my university years. For a summer I framed houses in a crew of five: three Dutchmen and two English. We were all Americans, but the Dutch are what the Amish call themselves (from Deutsch) and the rest of us are “English”. That summer I learned how to work. Mel was our foreman. We would arrive at a building site where there were typically 10-15 houses going up. There would be 2-3 crews including us, though we were the only Amish one. When we arrived at a new site there would be other crews who had started framing. We would always finish and while they were still working on theirs. We framed one house every 4-5 days on average, and these were not small houses.

It was not a race, but Mel knew the value of time. We arrived organized and ready to start work. He unrolled his blue prints while we unloaded the materials and tools. Mel would measure a piece, cut a piece, one of us would carry it to the point of use and another would nail it in place. Now that I look back, it was one-piece flow. Other than Mel’s saw we didn’t use power tools or forklifts so he only cut what we could carry by hand, sometimes a 4×8 sheet of plywood on one shoulder up a ladder to the roof. It was continuous motion from 8AM to noon, then again after lunch from 1PM to 5PM, in 95 degree summer heat, and yet we outperformed every crew on every site, even having a total beginner (me) in the crew.

Our little framing crew was lean operation. We had a daily plan (external set up by Mel), we had teamwork (clear roles) and we had synchronized material flow. Due to a lack of power tools, we had zero downtime. I soon absorbed from watching that there was a right and wrong way to carry loads on my shoulder, position a nail, swing a hammer. There was no TWI instruction, but there was standardized work to catch on to. At the end of each day we cleaned around the site, packed up all of our tools in the truck and were ready for the next day. The truck?

This brings us to habit #7.

7. Permit experimentation. While each Amish community adheres to their rules or “Ordnung”, there is local variation between communities. For various reasons communities chose to allow certain innovations. For example Mel drove a truck and he had a telephone. He ran a small home building business and had business cards. On it was a motto “Don’t let anyone else frame you”. He had a wry sense of humor. But he had no electricity in his home or other modern conveniences. It was not practical to ride long distances to a job site in a horse and buggy, and in his community having a work vehicle was allowed if it was to transport people and not to do the work itself (no tractors, no Dutchmen truckers).

Another example of experimentation was social. Two of the Dutchmen in my crew were in their early twenties. They wore jeans, sleeveless t-shirts, sneakers, and had haircuts reminiscent of 1980s heavy metal bands. They were in an “experimentation phase” that is recognized within many Amish communities. During this time the youth may drive a car, go to a bar, watch a movie or otherwise taste the English life. After a year or two most young people who experiment in this way choose to forever renounce all of this and return to the Amish community. They conduct their own personal experiments and conclude that their parents’ hypotheses were correct. The Amish way is not an imposed dogma, neither is lean. They are both proven philosophies and habits which seek to respect the community and achieve a high quality of life for its members.

To learn more about the Amish values and what they can teach us about lean management, read 10 things the Amish can teach the Toyota leadership. There is even a book about Amish wisdom in business titled Success Made Simple, as well as a CNN feature on Amish businesses, noting that 95% of them stay open at least 5 years. Better yet, grow a beard, put on some used clothes, beg a job with a crew of Dutchmen and catch their wisdom hands-on.

2 Comments

  1. John Santomer

    July 18, 2011 - 6:39 am

    Dear Jon,
    I was wondering, if the Amish way of life was closer to lean in more ways than one-why do they choose to take/purchase things or procedures “just to get it done”? Is this also not the clear explanation of the reality why they are behind most things and ways in life? I understand that the Amish’ chosen lifestyle have shielded them from the effects of recession but what about continuous improvement? If they chose to live life and kept things simple to proven ways, how do you expect them to embrace eliminating “muda” on most practiced processes? Isn’t this also the major factor that has kept them backward in most things? (Not because they can not but they chose not to?) I believe even in the “gemba” what has kept processes from acieving greater heights is mostly because of human error. What has kept “kaizen” alive is the conscious desire to learn and improve (without any other hidden agendas…simply like the Amish would have seen things – “just to get it done”…) Am I right on this?If the case is so, then its a question of mindsets? This is me here releiving an itch in my nape going through with this question… 😉

  2. Brian C

    July 20, 2011 - 10:19 am

    Jon,
    It isn’t that things are more “Caught than Taught.” Lessons are taught explicitly situation by situation, day by day, on how to do or not to do things. It is the learning equivalent of just in time one piece flow. The lessons accumulate over time until one is fully integrated and functioning in the environment or learned the necessary skill. No one learns by osmosis.