Lean: A Philosophy

A good friend of mine asked me what it was I did for a living.  He knew I took calls at all hours from all over the globe but, had no clue what it was I actually did.  So, I told him, matter of fact, that I was a continuous improvement analyst.  He returned a blank stare.  There was a long awkward pause and I added that I was trained in a philosophical business practice termed Lean.  This didn’t improve the situation and it was then that I realized most people, outside specific industries, don’t have a clue what Lean is.

I poured us both a drink, offered him a chair and began a twenty minute dissertation on Lean.  I went through the concepts and “tools”, briefly reviewed how to begin a Lean deployment and that because it is a philosophy, can be tailored to any industry.  He finished his drink as I ended my speech, looked at me and said, “Sounds like you just add fancy terms to common sense actions and principles.”

I didn’t know how to respond to this at first because, though it was not the first time I had heard Lean equated to “common sense” it was the first time I actually gave it deep thought.  Had I been fooling myself into believing Lean was more?  Is Lean just a “common sense” approach to business wrapped in a fancy expensive suit?

No.  There is nothing common about Lean.

Common sense infers there is a mass consensus of understanding regarding some, thing.  It supposes the majority of the population would agree to a common practice, thought, conclusion, etc.  Wikipedia defines common sense this way:

Common sense is a basic ability to perceive, understand, and judge things, which is shared by (“common to”) nearly all people, and can be reasonably expected of nearly all people without any need for debate.1 The everyday understanding of what common sense is derives from philosophical discussion, involving several European languages. Related terms in other languages include Latin sensus communis, Greek κοινὴ αἲσθησις (koinē aísthēsis), and French bon sens, but these are not straightforward translations in all contexts. Similarly in English, there are different shades of meaning, implying more or less education and wisdom: “good sense” is sometimes seen as equivalent to “common sense”, and sometimes not.2

Neither Lean, nor the foundational principles are, in my experience, truly understood by many or common to all people.  Experience has shown a wide gap between those who “get it” and those who don’t.  Many of those who don’t, sadly, show great resistance to the “philosophy” of Lean.  The feeling that Lean is just an “add-on” to their already full day creates animosity towards Lean and the practitioners.  The lack of understanding is a roadblock to true innovation.

Lean gets back to basics.  Lean, when implemented with 100% commitment, allows a person to do their job proactively instead of reactively.  Too often when sitting down with a manager I’ll ask, “How is your day going,” I’ll hear the same story.  They spend so much time putting out fires they have little time for much else.  Before we get to deep into the weeds I will be blunt and honest, Lean will not prevent fires from occurring.  Lean is not magical, however, it will allow you to see the fire before it grows and also get back on the road if a fire arises.

Lean encompasses so much that over the course of the next few months I will be writing posts describing the elements, principles and practices of Lean.  I won’t be focusing in any one industry.  Lean is typically related to manufacturing, which is where it was born.  I will keep these general on how Lean is deployed.  We have already begun the Lean journey here, as I would in a deployment.  My goal is that you have a deep understanding of Lean and hopefully become as passionate as I am.

Lean initially seems ridiculous at first because it starts well, at the beginning of what we do.  Too often we spend too much of our time “putting out fires,” or dealing with co-workers or office politics.  Our focus is not on our job.

Lean starts with getting back to basics and focuses attention away from everything except, what we are paid to do, our core job function.  It forces us to take a real deep dive into job specific elements and how they impact to the overall business.  It allows us to find the waste in the system and enables us to “stream-line” our operation.  Lean is our heads-up-display to guide us and continuously show us our status enabling us to make changes before we realize that the ship is off course, and that is just a high level look at Lean.

Lean is something I have a great deal of passion for.  Lean is something that works and keeps the job simple.  In today’s world of mass chaos Lean allows us to maintain the farm and catch the chickens when they get out of the coop without having to increase our efforts.


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