Taoism, Lean Thinking and Respect for Humanity

By Jon Miller Updated on January 21st, 2018

I’ve written before on the parallels between Taoism and TPS a.k.a. lean thinking. It is not surprising that we find influences from so-called Eastern philosophies, as Taiichi Ohno and the others framers the Toyota Way were were from that culture. Taoism is evident within TPS in how work is organized. The emphasis is on keeping things simple, being frugal, going with the flow of nature rather than against, and being effortless. This is in contrast to more rigid philosophies that complicate life with many rules and restrictions. Taoist leadership means being effective through humility, compassion, having the courage to advance as well as retreat, and giving credit to others. Taoism delves into respect for humanity.

There is a story of a traveling philosopher who saw an old farmer working hard in his field. The farmer used a vase to draw water from a well to water his fields. The traveler watched the farmer’s struggles and offered, “I know of a tool that will make your work much more efficient,” and proceeded to describe the contraption of a rope, pulley and bucket to draw water from the well. The farmer laughed, “It is not that I don’t know of this, I choose not to use it. I heard my master tell, ‘Machines lead to mechanical actions, and mechanical actions lead to machinations in my heart.'” The old farmer preferred to work by hand because he believed the wisdom that machines influence his actions, his thoughts and his character, in unwanted ways. By modern values, we may think the old farmer is stubborn, superstitious or even foolish for choosing not to use a technological invention that will make his work easier.

Master Zhuan, a.k.a. Zhuanzi, is the fourth century Chinese philosopher  and one of the founders of Taoist thought. It was Zhuanzi who spoke the wisdom about machines. I believe it has deep relevance today for both how we practice lean thinking and in how we live our day-to-day lives. Let’s explore Zhuanzi’s words.

Where there are machines
People behave in mechanistic ways
When people behave mechanistically, thinking becomes mechanical
Within mechanistic hearts
則純白 不備
There is no purity
Where there is no purity
There is no God
Where there is no God
That is not the Way

A simpler way to phrase this may be, “When we rely too much on technology, we lose some of our humanity, and this is not right.”

Machines have progressively enriched our lives for hundreds of years. Nearly every generation experiences some sort of technological advance that disrupts society for a period of time. In this digital age we are inviting machines to become the de facto social and financial interfaces with other humans. It is without doubt that this has changed how we communicate, how we act and how we think. As an example, social media, despite its benefits, allows us to say things to each other that we would never say face to face. We allow the technological innovation to draw us into unfamiliar ways of behaving, thinking, and existing in society. Whether or not we believe, as Zhuanzi warns, that this makes our spirits less pure, this is not the Way (Tao) of simple, humble, compassionate, effortless being.

If we replace the words “mechanical” and “machine” above with Lean, what would happen? Do “Lean tools” result in “lean actions” and “lean thoughts?” The practice of can certainly develop patterns of thought and behavior focused on serving others, preventing and solving problems. As a result of Lean, do we have hearts that are pure and inviting to the Spirit? Perhaps, but this depends on what we include in “Lean”. Like the old farmer in the story, does Lean represent an invention or tool that is rational, useful, bringing efficiency and productivity, but also threatens to make us lose appreciation for our work? When we adopt a new technology, or a methodology like Lean, without considering how it will affect the lives of humans around us, we risk trading some of our humanity for efficiency.

Perhaps Zhuanzi naively imagined an ideal world where people lived in mutual respect and harmony, free from technological innovations. But even 1700 years ago, his life in China was full of technical advances compared to his ancestors or even compared to neighboring countries. I take Zhuanzi’s words not to be a prohibition on machines or technological advances, but a warning against unthinking adoption of these advances, tools and methods that seem to make us more efficient. When we allow machines, innovations or Lean methods to speed up our lives, there are always unintended consequences that disturb harmony between people, and that is not the Way.

  1. Renee Smith

    January 22, 2018 - 9:54 am

    A very thought provoking post Jon. This resonates: “When we adopt a new technology, or a methodology like Lean, without considering how it will affect the lives of humans around us, we risk trading some of our humanity for efficiency.”

    It is so important that we “consider” rather than just reflexively use Lean methods, that we know why we use something and study what its impact will be. This opens up the option that a “classic” Lean method might not be right for a given situation – which is a heretical statement in some lean circles! We should study the impacts of our methods just as we use the methods to study a given problem we are trying to solve.

    Your post also reminds me of an interview with Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired magazine and a “philosopher technologist” (On Being” with Krista Tippett.) He described his fascination with the Amish who are, like the farmer using the vase to draw water in your post, constantly evaluating new technology against two key value questions: 1) Will this technology strengthen my family? and 2) Does this technology strengthen the community? Amish community members receive permission to pilot technology and then the community watches them to learn the impacts of that technology on family and community. After that “experiment” they decide if the technology should be adopted. Your post and the example of the Amish remind me to truly consider thoughtfully, mindfully, what we advocate, teach, coach as we promote Lean thinking and practices, and what the impacts will be on people.

  2. Jon Miller

    January 22, 2018 - 1:34 pm

    Hello Renee

    The Amish example is perfect. And I don’t think it is heretical to question whether Lean methods ought to be applied or not. Part of Lean is to grasp the current state and envision the ideal condition. If at some point we find that our current understanding of “Lean” is not moving us toward an ideal world, we need to change our approach.

  3. Renee Smith

    January 22, 2018 - 6:53 pm

    I totally agree with you that it isn’t actually heretical to question the method. I’ve just seen too many examples where folks are enamored with the method, wedded to the method, religiously committed to the method! Instead, I deeply value the emphasis you place above that starts with deep respect for humanity with methods flowing from that pursuit.

  4. Hiroaki Kokudai

    February 1, 2018 - 12:30 pm

    Hi Jon! Excelent article! You know very well all about oriental philosophy.
    Now I am studying “omotenashi”. My japanese parentes never told me this word. It was not necessary. It was part of the culture! I learned a lot when I worked with you! Thanks!

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