It's So Good Because It's So Mutual

By Jon Miller Published on October 27th, 2013

Over the last couple of years both the application and meaning of “Lean” has been… broadened, stretched or even re-imagined quite a bit. This is largely thanks to its discovery and adoption by people from the software development, entrepreneurship and innovation fields. Although we share the word “Lean” there has so far been only limited overlap and exchange between these two communities of professionals. Although the most famous gurus in each camp may have heard of each other, they are often as mutually ignorant of the others and where the came from as two generations can be.
Recent exchanges with startup, agile, kanban and other frontier Lean people reminded me of a favorite moment from the show Green Room with Paul Provenza. The Green Room is a talk show that invites a panel of guests who discuss comedy. Although it is not a comedy show, the sharp wits and comedic skills of the guests can make for side-splitting viewing.
Early in Season 2 Episode 1, as the circle of guest comedians were being introduced to each other, the young Bo Burnham (born 1990) addressed the veterans surrounding him, “I’m of the younger generation so I just wonder – for all of you – who are you?”
This brought applause and laughter from the audience as well as the guests. Not missing a beat, the veteran comedian Garry Shandling (born 1949) smiled and replied, “It’s so good. It’s so good… because it’s so mutual.”
No doubt there was a certain amount of planning that went into Burnham’s clever moment, timing and delivery. Shandling’s response was spontaneous, building on what was funny about Burnham’s line, turning it around to make the moment even funnier. Shandling’s line has stayed with me because it is so good, so true.
It wasn’t so long ago that I felt like Burnham, but these days, more like Shandling.
Remembering this line made me reflect what’s so good, true and mutual about Lean.
Mutual respect. A lot is made of “respect for people” in discussions of Lean. I like to remind people that in the original Japanese, it is “respect for humanity” or “humanness” and not people, but there is nothing wrong with respecting people, as long as we don’t forget humanity, and as long as it is mutual respect. We need to be careful that we are not demanding respect for people, for ourselves, for our ideas and opinions, but rather that we as Lean people are giving respect freely and leading by example. Lean works when respect is given sincerely and freely, received as such and returned. This is a mutual activity.
Mutual understanding. Progress in working together as people begins with understanding each other. Before we can solve any problems, we need to understand it. Before we can understand a problem, we need to agree on it. Before we can understand agree on a problem, we need to understand each other, our biases, hopes, fears, assumptions and paradigms.
Mutual agreement. Change forced onto people creates resistance. Change that is heartfelt and motivating is pulled forward by people. Agreement is not the lack of resistance. Agreement is not the small nod and pause that precedes a prepared speech. Agreement only comes from mutual respect, true listening, building on the other person’s understanding towards something mutual and good. Mutual agreement cannot come without understanding where we do not agree, mutually respecting these differences and working to close these gaps wherever possible.
Mutual assistance. Society is a mutual endeavor at all levels. Families, teams, communities, associations, faiths, businesses all depend on mutual assistance towards mutually agreed personal or group goals. The changing role of the leader within a Lean organization to becoming a coach, teaching and assisting the success of the team, rather than being the star player, hero and boss may be the most difficult and most important transformation in Lean. Without this change, there will be no mutual assistance between the team and the team leader, only compliance-by-incentive at best.
Mutual learning. Based on mutual respect and trust that it is safe to admit mistakes and ignorance, understanding and agreement on the value of differing perspectives and outside expertise, and humility in accepting tutelage and helping hands from all sources, mutual learning becomes possible between teacher and student, leader and led, customer and supplier.
Mutual prosperity. History has shown us that one-sided prosperity is not sustainable in the long-term. It’s so good when it’s so mutual.
Mutual trust. Does trust come at the beginning or the end of this list? Trust must be continually earned, woven and strengthened. It can be easily broken through misunderstanding, disagreement, withholding of assistance or the perception of unfairness in realization of prosperity. Trust is a promise delivered overwhelmingly often. Mutual trust comes from the mutual practice of all of the above.
Comedy and Lean are both so good, so mutual. Both live or die on direct customer (audience) feedback. Both require practice to achieve delivery that delights the customer. The success of both is built on mastery of timing as much as content. A deep understanding of the human condition are essential to Lean as much as comedy. Most importantly, Lean and comedy share a mutual long-term aim: to bring people happiness.

  1. David Kennedy

    October 27, 2013 - 4:52 pm

    Where does cultural understanding fit into this sharing of information? Although it might fit into the mutal understanding category, i would argue cultural understanding would need its own. What is your opinion?

  2. Jon Miller

    October 27, 2013 - 8:16 pm

    Hi David
    I think cultural understanding fits under both “mutual understanding” and “mutual learning”. These are broad and general categories, the list must certainly be adapted to an organization’s specific circumstances, and cultural understanding may well need to stand alone.

  3. Jorge B Wong

    October 30, 2013 - 6:33 pm

    Andy Saito, the Toyota Sensei, in “Andy and Me” (by Pascal Denis) says:
    WE see together,
    WE decide together,
    WE do (it) together…
    This is a mutual effort (WE means the whole team) and compact learning cycle: Check (see), Plan (decide), Do.
    This is similar to the OODA (observe-orient-decide-attack)loop used by top gun fighter pilots and special-forces teams.

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