Sunday, April 19, 2015

Beware the Lean Expert

“The man who is too big to learn will get no bigger.” – Chinese Proverb
I started learning about lean during my college days when I took a business class on the subject of W. Edwards Deming’s theory of management.  Since that time, I’ve spent a significant part of my career working to transform organizations to become more focused on sustainable, continual improvement in the way they operate.  Among the many things I’ve learned on this journey is to beware of anyone who refers to him- or herself as a lean expert.
Lean is about striving for perfection - and strangely enough, about understanding that perfection will never be achieved.  The way to continually close the gap between the current state and perfection is to learn; and learning occurs through never-ending experimentation. 
If a company improves to the point of being recognized as an industry leader, and starts to think it has reached perfection, then further learning – and improvement – would stop.
The same applies to individuals.  I’ve run into many self-proclaimed “lean experts” over the years who think they understand lean so well that they visibly stop learning.  They attempt to drive lean thinking into an organization the way they’ve done it in the past and ignore the signs that identify problems.
A requisite for continual learning is humility.  Unfortunately, the culture in many organizations interferes with the ability to demonstrate humility.  Openly showing problems and asking for help can be seen as weakness, which motivates people to hide humility and the associated learning that it can facilitate.
The way around this is to be wary of anyone who claims to be an expert – in lean or any other aspect of the business.  Continually question his or her statements and approach to help drive understanding of the gaps in performance, whether or not the gaps are obvious. 
I’ve been working to drive continual improvement into organizations for decades and find myself learning on a daily basis something I didn't previously understand.  When I look back at some of the things I’ve written in the past (something, by the way, that a writer should never do), I’m amazed at how little I knew at the time and how sad it would have been if I stopped learning.
Organizations that begin the journey to lean thinking often bring in experienced people to help with the effort.  I advise leaders of these organizations that they can avoid a long and painful journey by avoiding anyone claiming to be a “lean expert.”  Unless your name happens to be Deming or Ohno – and I’m guessing neither would really consider themselves experts – you have way too much to learn to use the term.

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