What Lean Leaders Can Learn from the Humanities

By Jon Miller Updated on August 14th, 2017

Leaders in business tend to come with educational backgrounds in finance, business, engineering, medicine or law. It is less common that they bring backgrounds in literature, philosophy, the liberal arts. These fields are viewed as less useful in running businesses which require a degree of sophistication in finance, law or engineering. What can business leaders learn from the humanities, and specifically what can leaders who are concerned with adopting Lean management learn?

A [email protected] interview with the author of Cents and Sensibility: What Economists Can Learn from the Humanities offers answers. A powerful example from the book illustrates why it is essential that rational, economic decisions be tempered with ethics and empathy in order for them to be both humane and to have a fair chance at successful implementation. In a World Bank memo on the topic of, “Where in the world is it best to relocate toxic waste?” Economists concluded it was Central Africa, “because people had very high morbidity, high mortality and not a lot of education. Hence, a low opportunity cost of their time.” A Brazilian secretary of the environment responded to this memo,

“Your reasoning is perfectly logical, but it’s totally insane. Your thoughts provide a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and the arrogant ignorance of many conventional economists concerning the nature of the world in which we live.”

How often do people in business or Lean leadership roles make similarly rational but somewhat insane decisions? Northwestern Professor and author Gary Saul Morson makes a comment that could apply as well to lean leaders as to economists

“I was amazed that economists actually think people always behave according to their best self-interests, that you can mathematicize human behavior, that culture is irrelevant.”

Prof. Morson says what we can learn from the humanities is empathy. The ability to see things from other people’s points of view. What we think will improve a situation, others may not regard as helpful. What we think as good, others may not. When we improve without without putting ourselves in other people’s shoes, we usually fail to make a lasting positive impact.

Prof. Morson offers surprising advice on developing empathy; read literature.

“What great literature is really best at, the great realist novels in particular, is teaching empathy. To read one of these works page by page, you see the world from inside the perspective of a person unlike yourself, with a different gender, values, culture, period, norms. You get a lot of practice in empathy.”

The comment above does give me a new appreciation for business novels. Eli Goldratt’s The Goal introduced many people to continuous improvement concepts of the Theory of Constraints while pulling us into the personal life and struggles of the protagonist. Michael Balle has approached teaching sophisticated lean concepts while also giving the reader the opportunity to develop empathy in his series starting with The Gold Mine and most recently Lead with Respect. Pascal Dennis also does this effectively in Andy and Me.

What works of literature have helped you develop empathy for others? Which of these might be good additions to a lean leader’s reading list for the purpose of developing empathy and respect for people?

Toyota’s puts continuous improvement and respect for humanity at the nucleus of its approach to what we call Lean management. Perhaps we also need make room for respect for the humanities in our lean thinking.

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