RecipesIn a previous blog post, I defined Lean intellectualism as “substituting knowing for doing, an over-emphasis on thinking and under-emphasis on doing, which includes the ability to speak fluently about Lean management but without ever actually having done anything of significance.” Basically, to create an appearance of being intelligent about Lean and limit the conversation to the things that are easy to understand and do – much like recipes. That has resulted in a lot more Lean talking than Lean doing in the workplace. It seems the gap between brain-on thinking and hands-on doing has grown wide over time.

Lean intellectualism is an esoteric and cultured way of Lean thinking, versus its original intent, as expressed by those who created Toyota’s management system: Go to the genba and get your hands dirty using trial-and-error to reduce costs by creating flow. Lean is not a sophisticated way of thinking among intellectual elites. It is a practical way of thinking among the people who are responsible for doing the work that satisfies customers, which includes everyone from top leaders to shop and office floor associates.

Many of the original group of people who created Toyota’s production system were high school educated. They had to learn by doing. Even those who were college educated had to learn by doing because college courses did not teach process improvement or how to create flow. Practical outcomes such as cost reduction, higher quality, shorter lead-times, and so on could not be learned in the classroom.

We would all do better with Lean management, and especially with kaizen, if we consider ourselves no more than high school educated, which is just about all the education that is truly necessary to create Toyota’s management system in your organization. That means not knowing the answer to how to bring abnormal conditions closer to the standard. So, instead, you have to make improvements by actually doing things such as making prototypes and running simulations with you own hands. That way, you learn by doing and avoid getting bogged down in debate with yourself or others who have too much education and who like to talk.

The best sensei are mysterious and do not answer questions. Their rationale is this:

  • I don’t have the answer
  • I don’t know your precise situation
  • People must learn to think for themselves
  • People must take action to improve their thinking

In addition, answering one questions leads to having to answer more questions, and then many more questions, and often the same question over and over again. Thus, time is spent answering questions and not in providing direction towards the practical goal of cost reduction and flow at the genba.

Lean intellectualism has with it a desire to answer any and all questions, both casually and when engaged in research. As a professor doing research, I ask a lot of questions and work hard to find answers to those questions. University is the correct setting for Lean intellectualism. But, when I was a business unit manager, my interest was in eliminating abnormalities that prohibited cost reduction, shorter lead-times, higher quality in the products we manufactured. More recently in my role as a teacher, my interest has been to create much better learning experiences for my students. Practical workplace needs come first.

It is unlikely that we can stop answering questions either casually or as part of academic research. But, we face a risk in freely answering questions about Lean in the workplace: That Lean management fails to take root and evolve to create better tomorrows for people; to reduce human suffering and increase innovative and creative contributions that improve the human condition. We must advance the practice of Lean management to the point where people leave work healthier than when they arrived. That is the future of Lean.

8 Responses to Lean Intellectualism

  1. Jeff Morrow says:

    Ouch! I resemble those remarks, which seem right on the mark, particularly regarding Gemba-distance.

    Under-tethered to enterprise Gemba we may have created a philosophy Gemba where problems have to do with visibility and credibility, and countermeasures play out in posts and books and PowerPoint.

    • Bob Emiliani says:

      Jeff – Thanks for admission(!) and your insightful comment. Here’s an interesting comment from someone who read the post and e-mailed me their thoughts:

      “Nice work. I can only speak for my experience in corporate America, that folks are far less willing to experiment – that the answer and the next step HAVE to be known before taking it. This lack of faith in one’s abilities inhibits the speed at which we can change; look what happened to the dinosaurs. I do find also that my colleagues who execute projects are looking for a step-by-step [method] instead of having to think through situations and simply allow others to find the answers. Good Post!”

  2. Jay Bitsack says:

    Hi Bob,

    After reading your article several times, I’m still struggling in my attempts to reconcile what your wrote and what you actually intended to convey. By my interpretation, it appears that you’re definitely walking a very fine line between making a pertinent commentary and being unnecessarily inflammatory. How so, you might ask? Well for starters just consider the dictionary definition of the word “intellectualism”…

    1. Exercise or application of the intellect.
    2. Devotion to exercise or development of the intellect.

    Given those two definitions, if there ever was a context in which they both apply equally well I would argue (quite vehemently) that a “TRUE” lean thinking and behaving environment – particularly one that manifests itself in the form a complex adaptive system (ala the TPS/Toyota Way) – demands a higher level of thinking and behaving (i.e., rapid/adaptive problem-solving and accelerated learning – at the individual, team/group, departmental, and organizational levels). Without such higher order thinking and behaving ability it would likely NOT be possible for Toyota to manage both its pool of existing knowledge (e.g., deep technical competencies) and the ability to generate/discover the new knowledge – on demand – that is so vital to pushing the CI envelope into places where the organization has never before ventured (i.e., hybrid and fuel cell vehicles, FBL to GBL transition, TNGA, etc.). And it’s in these instances of practicing/applying kaikaku thinking and behaving over and above the more highly touted kaizen thinking and behaving that the role of intellectualism becomes a vital aspect of and contributor to discovering the new knowledge needed to pursue a breakthrough either in the product or process arena or both simultaneously.

    That said, the only place I’ve been able to stitch together the possible underlying intent of what you wrote together with my impression is at the “gemba point.” More specifically, wherever the knowledge comes from, it must still be put into play on the gemba. And in this context, because the active gemba is intended to be a place of stability, it does not always lend itself to engaging in the sort of experimentation-based learning that is needed. It’s simply too risky to conduct the full spectrum of learning that may be required directly on the gemba. Ergo, the other place where it is “safe” to engage in this higher-order learning/experimentation/discovery process is in a “learning laboratory” which is capable of simulating the gemba without putting the active production processes at unnecessary risk of interruption and/or destabilization. And as computer-based technologies have continued to evolve in their capabilities, so too has the ability of problem-solvers and innovators to conduct their learning/experimental endeavors in a virtual environment; thereby increasing the speed and accuracy of the interventions/solution development process…. less waste.

    • Bob Emiliani says:

      Hi Jay – Thank you for your comments. Are you sure it’s a “higher level of thinking?” Are you sure the “gemba is intended to be a place of stability?” Are you sure “simulating the gemba” by creating a “virtual learning environment… increas[es] the speed and accuracy of the interventions/solution development process?”

      • Jeff Morrow says:

        (Big smile on my face.) Seems like we’re heading down that old philosophy road while dissing it. Isn’t it obvious that we, and Toyota, need good theory AND good practice? Still, I suspect that many of us who would like more practice and can’t find opportunity that suits wind up in retreat to philosophy, and this may be what Bob’s writing about. It’s a common problem in philosophy, in my opinion, to argue over the map of the territory when the territory itself is out of reach.

        • Jay Bitsack says:

          Hi Jeff,

          There’s that old adage about that people in the teaching profession that goes something along the lines of… “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Personally, even though I’m not a teacher by profession, take objection to that notion. YES, most certainly as is true in any field of endeavor, there are those who fall toward either extreme of that spectrum of possible attitudes and behaviors. However, those individuals – in my opinion – are not worth writing about. And if one choose to write about one extreme or the other, I believe that doing so only serves to alienate those who hold the middle ground…. that’s the key point I am attempting to convey here.

          And there’s NO BIG SMILE on my face while I’m writing this. Rather, I DO consider this issue to be serious business; worthy of serious dialogue, much the same way Bob believes that the expressing/highlighting the difference between REAL LEAN and FAKE LEAN is serious business.

      • Jay Bitsack says:

        Hi Bob,
        Yes, I’m quite sure of what I’m saying. And in that regard, what I did not say is that gemba is or need to be “static” or unchanging. If we look at day-to-day operations on the gemba, I would hope it’s clear that everything taking place is intended to maintain a smooth and consistent flow. Yes, that’s not always possible on a minute-by-minute basis, but all attention is devoted to maintaining continuous flow whenever an interruption does occur.

        Now, when we step back from day-to-day operations an look at the gemba as being part of an overall system, this is where its possible to visualize transformation taking place that are intended to better “adapt” the system to the changing/dynamic conditions in the environment in which it operates. And if that strikes you as a form of “intellectualism,” I would tend to agree. I would also agree that intellectualism in that form is vital to the on-going evolution of the system.

        To my way of thinking (and doing), I also see – as does Toyota with its “digital factory” capabilities – the gemba being represented and simulated (safely and efficiently) in virtual form so as to better enable the ability of the organization’s “system thinkers” to conduct experiments on a much more grand and complex scale. Why is that something of value, you might wonder? Well, it has everything do with the speed, efficiency, and effectiveness of the solution design, testing, and optimization process. It’s a 21st century manifestation of how lean thinking and behaving (ala TPS/Toyota Way is evolving/emerging) in response to its 21st century environment.

        • Jay Bitsack says:

          Hi Bob and Jeff,

          As an afterthought to my earlier postings, and after re-reading the related article… Lean Overproduction, it strikes me that potentially more meaningful and appropriate terminology to use/apply in describing what’s being cited as problematic within the lean CI community is “regurgitative lean”. The word “regurgitate” (i.e., 1. To cause to pour back, especially to cast up as in partially digested food. 2. To repeat – as in facts or other learned items – from memory with little reflection) would seem – to me – to be a more apropos way of referring to the fundamentally NON-THINKING phenomenon being questioned.

          To me, exercising the reguritative reflex is a far cry from exercising a higher-order intellectual capability/capacity (i.e., a. The ability to learn and reason; the capacity for knowledge and understanding, b. A person’s individual ability to think and reason). And by definition, the word “intellectualism” is much more closely associated with the notions of learning and being intelletually-gifted/estute than the word “regurgitate.”

          Bottom line: I recognize and appreciate the significance of the problem, but I disagree with the way it has been approached… semantically speaking.

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