Deeply Understanding Improvement with Edgar Schein & John Shook

By Jon Miller Updated on September 23rd, 2022

The Lean Enterprise Institute has put together the transcript of a dialogue between Prof. Edgar Schein and John Shook during the Lean Healthcare Academic Conference at Stanford in September 2017. The fifteen pages are full of stories and historical perspectives that provide context for the question of how to balance the technical side as well as the soft side of Lean, Six Sigma, and related themes. Log in or register to download a copy of the full document from the Lean Enterprise Institute.

The Early Days of Improvement Culture

Prof. Schein starts things off by taking us through his memories of early 20th-century process improvement, noting that when re-engineering, Lean, Six Sigma, etc. started.

I think they forgot that bit of history. They forgot about asking people. They forgot about creating open Level 2 relationships, and they forgot about the need to fix the whole system rather than just the subsystem.

What Prof. Schein calls “Level 2 relationships” fall between “Level 1” or transactional, role-based relationships and “Level 3” which are close friendships or romantic ones. Level 2 relationships are more personal, open, and psychologically safe for people to speak their minds. These relationships are the foundation of coaching, consulting, and helping.

Lean, six sigma, and other methods have led with tools and techniques, in Prof. Schein’s opinion.

“We need to get out the data, in order to know how people feel, in order to know what might work and how we can improve the system.”

John Shook presents the opposite view. He observes that discussions of organizational change are now dominated by the social side, resulting in less rigor in the technical analysis.

“You can’t redesign work just by asking people how they feel, unless we give them problem solving skills, they won’t necessarily know how to make progress in improving it.”

For decades there have been organizations that put too much focus on technical rigor at the expense of people’s feelings, and those that spend too much time engaging people without giving them rigorous and proven methods to help themselves out. Are things any worse across the board than in the past? Whether this is a perceived problem or one backed up by data from adequate sample sizes was not part of the dialogue.

Telling vs Asking

One of the prevailing beliefs in Lean is that telling is less effective than asking. Schein and Shook answer the question, “Why do we ask questions rather than tell?” with “To get real information about the situation.” Shook builds on this idea through a story from his Toyota days. After three years in a coaching relationship with his boss, Shook realized that in that time he had never been told what to do by his boss, whose response was, “It took you three years to figure this out?” Shook wondered, “Yes. Maybe I would have understood more quickly if you had told me what was going on.” His Toyota boss explained that you avoid telling people what to do because it robs them of ownership and responsibility for that action. Great story, but I suspect that Shook’s experience may have been exceptional, based on who his boss was and what Shook was being groomed for. In any case, not all companies have the luxury of letting subordinates work out ways to solve problems, even when bosses know what should be done. Shook and Schein also observe the danger of taking either command-and-control or employee empowerment too far.

More Gems of Wisdom

There are many more gems of wisdom in the dialogue. Here are a few

Another explanation of how telling can rob us is that solving a subordinate’s problem is “working against the real problem, which is that the person does not have the insight to know how to solve the problem that they need to solve”.

When going to the gemba, we must seek to grasp the situation before diving into the causes. The first question to ask is not “Why?” but rather “What is happening?”

People who wish to coach others need to first build the relationship and earn trust. “Relationships have to evolve. They don’t just happen.”

On the issue that some Lean coaches have the habit of turning every request for help back into a question such as, “What do you think needs to happen?” Shook says, “I think it’s very important that we make sure that it [coaching] doesn’t feel like a game.”

Regarding Lean / TPS, Shook brings the point home that while it’s a system to help us excel, we must stay humble. “It’s not just a system to win the game, it’s a system to identify weaknesses. To identify my weaknesses and consider how I can improve.”

Download the Transcript

Download a copy of the full dialogue from the Lean Enterprise Institute website.

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