Tips for Lean Managers

Lean: A Life of Mistakes by Cynical, Unreasonable People

By Jon Miller Updated on May 24th, 2017

The more I try to get away from work by reading anything but books on kaizen, lean and continuous improvement, the more it seems I find examples of these anyway. An occupational hazard perhaps. Here are three important lessons from Irish novelist and playwright, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and wicked wit George Bernard Shaw:

A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.

We often say that continuous improvement depends on the ability of people to experiment, make mistakes, reflect and learn from the mistakes. It is truly honorable when leaders create an environment in which it is safe for people to experiment, fail and learn. In fact it may take more courage to allow others to make mistakes than to make mistakes oneself. The good results of these experiments we call kaizen, and the learning that occurs from poor results we call development of human potential. When we achieve good results free of mistakes we call it competence, but mostly it is luck.

The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.

While opinions and ideologies can be had and held with only minimal effort from our armchairs, facts require that we put forth some mental and physical effort. The act of observation requires presence and attention, the accuracy thereof open-mindedness and the will to release held opinions when they conflict with observed fact. Seeing the truth can be uncomfortable. Having truth that conflicts with one’s belief can be even more so.

Pointing out the misconceptions in the minds of others can result in being called cynical or worse. Accurate observation must be preceded by and paired with education, alignment and commitment to act to improve a situation, regardless of our preconceived notions in order for continuous improvement to take root.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Neither the Toyota Production System nor lean management would not exist today had Taiichi Ohno been a reasonable man. Thank heavens he was, in his own words, “amanojyaku” or a person who is contrarian and who purposely does the opposite of what others do and breaks rules just to see what may happen. The word comes from Japanese folklore, referring to a small demon who reads people’s minds and plays tricks on them.

This is an apt word to describe this personality type within a Japanese culture which values conformity and harmony. Conformists and lovers of harmony may not make the best lean thinkers. We need to be unreasonable with the current condition of the world, demanding better and agitating for change, deftly reading the minds of others and planting seeds of change there. The temple guardians may stamp us under their feet, but unreasonably, we must persist rather than adapt to this condition.

  1. John Santomer

    August 9, 2011 - 2:18 am

    Dear Jon,
    Everything you have noted above are so true. To the extent that one can be called a cynic, unreasonable or worse a non-team player. Blazing trails to discover alternative options and showing that it could work better is not the easiest of careers and a lot would take this as a VERY personal issue. (Normally takes more time to jolt some out of their comfort zones.)
    I am not claiming that I, for one, am a lean agitator. My mind set merely seeks to make lean or streamline with less obstacles or “muda” what can be a closed sustainable process. Questions are unending when we do see better ways to go through a process.
    Another question and I do not want to be a “amanojyaku”, as you said, wouldn’t it be more conducive for lean and “kaizen” to fluorish if people were allowed to experiment, fail and learn instead of contradicting what is new and proposed improvements? The thing is, one has to be very receptive that in between these improvements, sustainability should first be achieved before another idea can be put in motion. There is no use for putting to motion numerous process improvements without realizing the effect of the first implementation…Otherwise one risks the complete breakdown of the process under such circumstance.

  2. Luciano

    August 10, 2011 - 7:33 pm

    Just like Edison’s words, as John Shook cited in his last e-letter: “I haven’t failed – I’ve found 10,000 things that don’t work.”

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