The Horse, the Carriage and the Carriage Fee

By Jon Miller Updated on July 15th, 2017

The automobile has been with us for approximately a century. For the millennia prior to that, we had horses. Because horses were an important part of lives and civilizations for so long, they generated many idioms and proverbs. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Like beating a dead horse. The carrot and the stick. Get off your high horse. She’s a dark horse candidate. Straight from the horse’s mouth. Hold your horses. Wild horses couldn’t drag me away. 

When we wish to warn against doing something out of sequence or not according to the proper procedure, we use the expression “let’s not put the cart before the horse.” Carts do not lead horses. Horses do not push carts. The proper arrangement for carrying a load is to have the horses pull the carriage or wagon behind it. While we can improve the horse, the cart, the roads, and the logistics and planning of carriage loads, the cart-horse relationship is immutable. There are proper and improper arrangements of doing almost anything. Learning what these are for our various processes is what makes the greater part of lean management and organizational development.

We can grasp the cause-and-effect logic of the expression, “don’t put the cart before the horse” even if we have never seen a horse and carriage up close as long as we have basic appreciation of how force is applied to move mass. Today when a majority of us no longer make our living by moving mass but instead by providing a service or doing knowledge-based work, we don’t always grasp so well how to get the metaphorical horse in front of the metaphorical cart. We buy a fancy new cart, invent new harnesses, shift the load on the cart, or plan new delivery routes, and wonder why the horses remain disengaged.

There is a very common lean management word that is horse-related. It is the Japanese word muda for “waste”. Literally, it means “no carriage fee”. When the cart is empty, no customer is paying for our effort yet we pay the driver, feed and water the horses, maintain the wagon. It is a cost. Driving the horse and carriage empty is a waste of time.

無駄 = muda, “waste”   無 = mu, “no”   駄(賃) = da, “carriage (fee)”

We should always strive to put the horse before the cart. We need to put the carriage fee before both the carriage and the horse. Why are we bringing cart and horses together in the first place? What is the purpose? Who is the customer? What is the load they are entrusting us with? How much is the carriage fee? Only then can we judge whether we can profitably make the trip by horse and carriage, whether we can keep the horses motivated, or whether we should just stop horsing around.

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