Many years ago when I was first learning how to drive a car, my dear young aunt Ruth rode with me on an Illinois country road. She taught me the importance of accelerating when going into a curve. This was deeply counter intuitive to me, as I had previously always tapped the breaks when hitting a curve in the road. I’m no race car driver, but this lesson has stuck with me, and I think of her whenever drivers tap their breaks on the local highway S-curves, a cascade creating completely unnecessary traffic slowdowns.
This year, more than any year in memory, is starting off both with curves and increasing momentum. I am looking forward to the challenges and learning opportunities ahead for us in Kaizen Institute. Mentally, I am leaning into 2012. Just as my aunt Ruth taught me, it is a time to be fully engaged in the process of change, driving forward faster even when the road changes course.
This got me thinking about the popular expression of “lean forward” and “lean back” entertainment, and whether the definition of “lean” as a business practice might not benefit from the other definition, meaning to incline in a direction. A “lean forward” medium such as the personal computer or internet requires a certain level of interaction, intent and engagement while a “lean back” medium such as television or radio requires only passive attention, and not even full attention at that. Similarly, lean management is approached by some in a lean-forward-and-engage way and by others in a lean-backward-and-watch way.
Lean management is about both acceleration and change. It requires that the drivers and leaders lean into the process, rather than frequently tap the breaks, confuse those who follow and cause the organizational equivalent of the dreaded S-curve slowdown. The only way leaders can accelerate change is to engage in it themselves, to get a feel for both the vehicle and the road, leading by example before delegation. All levels within an organization must lean into it, everyone must be involved in kaizen.
Practically speaking, this means going back to the basics and checking that customer expectations, standards, visuals, zones of control, objectives, team norms, responsibilities and lines of communication are all clear and direct. If you have to ask, it’s not clear enough. This means removing barriers to making improvement, often meaning that we must take time to break down larger problems into smaller, more actionable ones. At other times, it means removing whatever wall, policy, prop or paradigm that people are leaning against, leaning back in disengagement. Leaning forward, even when we fall, we have a chance to right ourselves and make stumbling progress.
May your roads be as straight and smooth as the ones running through Illinois corn country, may the grip of your wheels be firm and your acceleration smooth when the earth inevitably curves beneath you.