How Children Can Help Us Become Better Lean Leaders

A multi-ethnic group of elementary age children are playing with toy blocks together at a table.

Lean thinking as a concept has been around for two decades since the publication of Lean Thinking by Womack & Jones. In practice, it existed before publication in a few parts of the world, and still does not exist in vast parts of it. As the book title implies, the most important change is not in how we organize our factories, design our hospital buildings or rewrite procedures, but in how we think. Without the thinking to spur behavior, the positive changes are not sustainable. Success at lean requires leaders to adopt new ways of thinking, to model behaviors and coach others. We are in effect asking leaders to learn and master a new subject, on the job, while meeting all other job requirements, and to be competent teachers to boot. Little wonder that lean transformation is so challenging and that sustained improvement is elusive for many organizations.

Leadership development and lean coaching for executives often focuses on the content, or lean principles and behaviors themselves, rather than the process. Learning how to learn is as important as learning the subject matter, especially for lean leadership. A Science Alert article gives hints on how Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman’s learning technique for mastering any subject could help leaders in this regard (video below).

We can break Feynman’s technique into 7 steps.

1. Study the topic.

2. Summarize. Take a piece of paper and write down what you learned. Do this as if preparing to teach it to someone else.

3. Identify gaps. Speak out loud what your wrote. Find out what you still don’t know.

4. Fill gaps. Repeat steps 1-3 until gaps are filled.

5. Simplify the language. Use graphic examples. Even when explaining our own proposals and ideas, we tend to layer our presentation with technical terms. Simplicity equals depth of understanding.

6. Clarify. If the summary remains confusing or wordy, repeat steps 1-5.

7. Teach it to a child. Ron Pereira asked in an article, how would you explain lean to a 7 year old? and generated dozens of good comments and responses. Children are curious and learn quickly. They will also let you know if you are boring or confusing them.

Leaders being asked to learn, model and teach lean behaviors need a safe environment in which to practice these things. Leaders may fear exposing their ineptitude or ignorance about lean behaviors to their subordinates or peers. Public failure may create resistance to further trial-and-error. Under duress they may fall back into old patterns and behaviors, reinforcing them. Role playing, simulations, and coaching are all good ways to practice safely. For those leaders who have young children, grandchildren, or access to willing youths, practicing the 7 steps above may help them become better students and teachers.