American football is in its preseason. Teams have been holding training events for veterans and new players. Sports media commentators often speak or write about a players “floor” or “ceiling.” A rookie with a “high ceiling” has not yet reached his peak, and it is hoped they will grow into a star players. On the other hand, a good player with a “lower floor” may be up-and-down, could take plays off or even have extended slumps. In a way we are talking about the upper and lower control limits of a football player’s performance. This floor and ceiling metaphor is interesting in terms of how we view Lean.
A common, though not entirely appropriate question, is “What’s next after Lean?” People want to know Lean management’s ceiling. The implied question is, “I understand how much better can Lean make us, but beyond that, what should we be working on?” This line of thinking misses the point that Lean is a way we do everything, from day-to-day operations to product development to business mergers to startups. It will take many generations for Lean to fully take root.
While there have certainly been failures of Lean to deliver on its promise, we have not yet found its ceiling. We should not think of Lean as being a destination or an ultimate state of excellence, as a ceiling. Instead, we should view it as the lowest standard of performance. Looking from now towards the future, today’s work is the worst we can do, because tomorrow we will be better. Lean is a floor. Lean management as a state of being is a standard from which to continuously improve, not a destination after which we can ask, “Where to next?”
This thinking of organizational performance in terms of floor and ceiling is in fact the opposite of how we view athletes. In terms of sports, there are physical human limitations to how fast we can run, how high we can jump, how hard we can hit. Until we engineer our bodies beyond the current standard of biological limitations, the ceiling is knowable. On the other hand, how many games a team can win together as an organization is limitless. The number of consecutive championships a team can win has no ceiling. How far we can go with our hands and feet may be limited, but what we can create with our minds seems to have no limit. This is the domain of Lean management, how people perform and improve together. Today is a floor, and there is no ceiling.
It may be useful to think of this in terms of abundance versus scarcity. When we are focused on managing and improving from scarcity, thinking “We don’t have enough time,” and “We don’t have money to invest in improvement,” and “Not enough of our people are engaged in problem solving,” our actions may become defensive, reactive, self-constraining. We look at the ceiling and think, “It’s too high.” When we manage and improve from abundance, we think, “There is a lot of waste and burden we can reduce,” and “There opportunities to improve and innovate are almost limitless,” and “People have untold potential to learn and grow.” If we stick to it, things can only get better.
Fittingly, the Lean house is built on stability, standard work and continuous improvement. Lean organizations begin by removing fear and instability, setting fair and sensible rules, creating customer- and process-centric standards, and using problems that emerge as an opportunity to learn and build upwards from this floor.