Suppose you are passionate about vacuum cleaners. New models. Vintage models. Sales. Repair. Perhaps you are even a genius when it comes to servicing vacuum cleaners. An artist. You find purpose in enabling others to move dirt and debris from flat surfaces into vacuum bags. People bring their vacuum cleaners to you from miles around. You’re too good to sweat the small stuff. Maybe you notice the photo. You click to enlarge it. It’s your shop. Maybe you miss the irony.
Irony is the pithy word that we use to describe conditions, events or phrases that signify the opposite of whatever is expressed by them. A professional editor whose website contains spelling errors. A lean consulting firm that fails to follow standards, does not work as a team, does not continuously improve. A vacuum cleaner shop that is cluttered, dirty and in disrepair. Doing anything in a way that it has the opposite of the intended effect. That is irony.
This is relevant for lean management. Irony abounds. Actions diverge from intentions. Lean talks a lot about purpose, as in “the why” we must undertake change or why a process or service exists. In a recent podcast by Simon Sinek we explored the golden circle. It places why (motivation) at the center, the how (process) next and what (product or service) at the outer ring. In lean we say “good process bring good results” and strive to measure what we do in both of those terms. Perhaps this phrase needs to be updated to “good motivation, good process, good results”.
But what if how we did things was more important than why we did them? Thirteenth century Talmud scholar Aaron ha-Levi of Barcelona said,
“A person is influence by his actions, and his heart and all his thoughts always follow the acts he does, whether they are good or bad.”
In other words, motivation doesn’t matter as long as long as the actions are good actions. If good is done without good in the heart, the act is still a good act. Further, the rabbi says that heart will eventually be made good, or at least better, by taking good action. We learn by doing. New ways of acting leads to new ways of thinking. When we follow lean principles by involving people to streamline processes and make them more people-and-customer-friendly, not only are the financial rewards good, these positive experiences can create motivation in the hearts and minds of people to pursue lean further. On the flip side, the best lean done with the wrong “how” and lacking the right action steps will turn people against even proven best practices. Lean done in a way that is not consistent with its principles feels worse than ironic.
What is the opposite of irony? In delicious irony, there appears to be no word that expresses the exact opposite meaning for a word that means “a condition, event or language to signify the opposite of what is expressed”. Close candidates include “consistency”, or better yet “internal consistency”, or “coherence”, as well as “constancy” of meaning across events and situations. We can say, “being serious” and “professionalism” also strongly suggest the opposite of irony.
Not everyone will agree with the statement, “How you get there is as important as where you intend to go.” In fact, where you are going is nothing more than a product of all of the steps we take to get there. The destination not knowable with certainty, only our actions. This is largely what most world religions and moral traditions teach; how we live determines where we go. The opposite reading of irony is ynori. By coincidence, a Japanese speaker would hear inori as “prayer”. Good processes bring good results. Whether or not we have good intentions, we should pray for strength to know and choose good actions.