The Value of Depth and Detail

By Kevin Meyer Updated on September 8th, 2016


Nearly three decades ago one of my first bosses pulled me aside – I forget the underlying incident except that I had somehow screwed up – and bluntly told me to “sweat the details.” I clearly remember it to this day, and it became one of the defining pieces of advice I have ever received. It was also a lesson in the power of immediate feedback versus waiting for the annual review.

I began to sweat the details, often obsessively, sometimes too much so. Just ask anyone who has traveled with me. Or lived with me.  Learning the value of details, and how to distill, evaluate and discriminate, has helped me tremendously.

Last January I told you how my annual “do something different” goal for this year is to read a work of literature from a different culture each month.  Initially this was something of a struggle for someone who typically reads Clancy-esque technothrillers and dry business tomes.  Twenty pages, if not more, just to develop a character?  You must be kidding!  Who has the patience?  But I dug in and did it.  After all, some of the most valuable goals are the ones that push you outside your comfort zone.  It’s been a very rewarding experience.

So far this year I’ve read (just as part of this goal) One Hundred Years of Solitude (Latin America), The Kite Runner (Afghanistan), Things Fall Apart (Africa), One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Russia), Men in the Sun (Palestine), The God of Small Things (India), Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (China), and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Japan).  I’m currently reading Ceremony (Native American), and next month will be Breath, Eyes, Memory (Haiti).  Any suggestions for November and December?

The Kite Runner has easily been my favorite so far, followed by Ivan Denisovich.  Ceremony has started out rather slow, but is now becoming an intriguing look at Native American society as well as the experiences of returning war veterans.  Life and Death and Wind-Up Bird were interesting immersions into Chinese and Japanese life, although keeping track of the multiple reincarnations in Life and Death (some not as humans!) became a bit difficult.

I’ve realized that what sets these works of literature apart is the depth and detail presented by the authors. Ivan Denisovich really is a couple hundred pages about just one twenty four hour day, but so engaging I couldn’t put it down! In The Kite Runner I truly felt like I was struggling to survive in Afghanistan, dealing with the consequences of war on life, livelihood, and family.  This created understanding, empathy, and compassion – exactly what I was looking for when I set this year’s goal.

Depth and details matter when telling a story.  Understanding depth and details takes either a talented author, or perhaps a trip to the gemba.  That’s one big reason why my wife and I have traveled to over 65 countries – to get the real story.  It’s scary how often that real story is at odds with sound bite-driven popular perception.

This is also evident in the lean world. We already know the value of visiting the gemba instead of making assumptions from a distant conference room.  Knowledge leaders in the field often ask themselves why lean doesn’t take root at every organization and in a sustainable fashion when there is so much evidence that it works. There’s even a lengthy survey currently circulating among such folks asking that and other similar questions.

I can tell you why: a lack of understanding of the depth and detail of lean. Instead of truly understanding what it’s about, we want to jump to the immediate benefits of 5S or value stream mapping without understanding the “why?” – and then the context of a simple tool within the overarching depth of the total lean methodology and philosophy. It’s why some of us push back on “lean six sigma” because it usually does not overtly include what I believe to be the most important aspect of lean: respect for people. Understanding respect for people, especially the roots from Toyota where it is really “respect for humanity,” is difficult.  But without it, lean simply isn’t lean.  The true power cannot be realized and sustained.

Lean is not just this or that tool.  It is an operating system framework to increase customer value by leveraging the power of people.  Understanding the depth and detail, including the historical underpinnings and how it can be uniquely applied to your specific circumstance, is critical for success.  Otherwise, even if short-term gains are realized, long-term failure is almost guaranteed.

Similar examples exist elsewhere.  Consider all the blog posts on the latest get-rich-quick or weight loss schemes that don’t convey the underlying context and circumstantial variation. How many people assume an author has professional stature just because of a superficially-reasoned argument, perhaps peppered with big words, instead of true studied knowledge and scientifically-evaluated evidence?

Tweets are 140 characters long and television and even some print news these days is reduced to sound bites.  The depth and detail has disappeared, and our opinions and decision-making are becoming very superficial – for increasingly complex and global issues.

We are losing the ability to access and process knowledge, lean and otherwise, based on  detail and depth.  How do we change that?

Perhaps we should start reading literature again to see what we’ve been missing.

  1. Tommaso

    September 9, 2016 - 10:02 am

    Try “Don Quijote de la Mancha”. It will give you insight on the character of all people of Spanish descent, not only those living in Spain. Of course the English translation is not the best way to do it, but try anyway.

  2. Jon

    September 9, 2016 - 12:49 pm

    Deming nailed it long ago. Understand systems, understand variation, understand psychology. Granted, these are large topics. The less we have to focus on, the deeper we can get into the detail. Or we can look for easy answers, rely on luck, blind ourselves with bias, chase the shiny object.

  3. Lothar

    October 5, 2016 - 7:18 am

    Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leaopard (Il Gattopardo) may Interest you. It’s about the breakdown of an old culture and the rise of a new one and how the members of a family deal with the change.

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