Columns By: Michael Ballé

Is lean management more conservative or progressive?

lean thinking politics

COLUMN - In political terms, is lean management more in line with conservative principles or progressive ideas? Michael Ballé reflects on a tough question.

Words: Michael Ballé, author and co-founder of Institut Lean France

I’ve been asked a question that gave me pause: politically, is lean more conservative or progressive? Is it more “right-wing” or “left-wing”? The question related to government policy and the fact that conservatives historically want to streamline government operations and reduce both its costs and the corresponding tax burdens on citizens, (which seems a very lean thing to do), while progressives want to protect workers from overburden and offer more opportunities to grow (which is also a lean thing to do).

How can lean be both “stern father” and “nurturing mother”?

I first dismissed the question as not only way above my pay grade and not that relevant, but it’s been bugging me since. After all, questions are there to make one think. My own political views are not a secret – I’m as confused as anyone else. I subscribe to progressive ideas but would like a more conservative way of getting things done. Very personally, I feel that a more egalitarian, open-minded, trustful society has to be a good thing but that achieving this through big government and forced reform rather than by creating inclusive institutions and individual incentives is just plain silly – and hopelessly self-defeating in actual practice.

The troubling question, politically, is whether innovation requires a more dog-eat-dog, wild-wild-West environment to strive.

This is a really uncomfortable question because it can be reasonably argued that most major innovations come from the United States (okay, the World Wide Web was invented in Switzerland, but Internet grew from an American military project) precisely because of its rough-and-tumble, winner-takes-it-all economics. One could also say that we, in Europe, are free riders benefiting from technology advances while not contributing much because of our more comfortable, protected societies (that, and offering structured markets for US innovators to make money and, in the recent cases of the Internet companies, not pay taxes).

How is any of this about lean?

I feel there is a clear cut point when someone first steps into real lean thinking: there is a “a-ha moment” when the person realizes how something they do contributes to their own non-performance.

A few weeks ago, at the gemba, the CEO of a company realized that having designed specific stations by product meant moving operators from one station to another all day long, which was hugely wasteful in terms of the use of space and people’s time and didn’t help in developing smart tools for work stations.

There were very good technical reasons for having designed work like this, but the layout had a large impact of the site’s performance and the CEO realized how his own thinking about technical processes was behind it all – a true lean thinking moment.

In my mind, lean is a box of tricks that unearth our own misconceptions by doing hands-on kaizen. I always assume that people are motivated and smart and that they usually do their best at work, but one or two large misconceptions can lead to catastrophic outcomes. In politics, the misconception that being elected by a majority gives you a mandate to impose your views leads to angering so many tribes that eventually you will be blocked by all at all times. You’re elected because a majority of people chose you, but you’re still the leader of everyone in your constituency.

In politics as well, the idea that government can be reformed by introducing more government is clearly fragile, and dubious at best. Similarly, cutting services and support for less fortunate families can’t be such a great idea.

If I’m right, lean is very unlikely to ever carry any weight in politics.

In any adversarial situation, the first person to admit that maybe, perhaps, possibly something they thought of could turn out to be wrong and have unwanted consequences will find the wolves turning on them instantly and tearing them apart. It’s safer to be wrong all along and go down with the ship rather than admitting that you might have changed your mind (exceptional leaders such as Churchill were prone to completely changing their minds as circumstances change, but you have to be exceptionally charismatic to pull it off).

Lean values are very explicit: to benefit society by increasing value in product or service offering whilst reducing costs to the customer and society by eliminating waste, and doing so by systematically developing people in an atmosphere or mutual trust.

The lean strategy for doing so was clearly stated by Kiichiro Toyoda: seeking “the ideal conditions for making things are created when machines, facilities, and people work together to add value without generating any waste.

But another deep root of lean thinking can be found in a fascinating book Samuel Smiles published in 1859 that greatly influenced Sakichi Toyoda: Self-help. Smiles states his problem frame starkly: “Even the best institutions can give a man no active help. Perhaps the most they can do is, to leave him free to develop himself and improve his individual condition. But in all times men have been prone to believe that their happiness and well-being were to be secured by means of institutions rather than by their own conduct.” And his generic solution is no less clear: “Daily experience shows that it is the energetic individualism which produces the most powerful effects upon the life and actions of others, and really constitutes the best practical education.” Arguing that “a man perfects himself by work more than by reading, - that it is life rather than literature, action rather than study, and character rather than biography, which tend to perpetually renovate mankind.”

In short, lean thinking is about creating conditions so that machines, facilities and people work together to add value with, at the same time, the deep-seated realization that scaling up brings “big company disease,” which is where the institution smothers the individual energy of self-help (or in modern lean terms, of the kaizen mind).

Lean thinking’s agenda is to learn to scale up whilst constantly fighting big company disease by working on observation and discussion with every employee to encourage energy and creativity.

Rather than bootstrapping (self-sustaining progress) through organization and reform, the aim of lean thinking is to bootstrap bootstrapping: helping every person to be more autonomous in their own self-sustaining progress. In that sense, lean values are clear but lean is completely apolitical.

It is not about fighting over who’s right and who’s wrong, but about getting things done in a way that all can contribute and all can benefit to some extent. It is about sharing the results of the elimination of waste, but that means abandoning seeking 100% solutions and understanding that compromise is a good word, not a bad one.

Lean is about seeing yourself as a green tomato – never ripe, always in the process of becoming.

Lean is neither right-wing nor left-wing. It is neither conservative nor progressive. Lean is about agreeing on the problem before fighting over solutions and then looking for 100 1% improvements, step-by-step. Lean is about spreading the ability to see, face and solve problems to every one everywhere, and in doing so build confidence in one’s own learning and in our colleagues.

Politics is about winning or losing on issues framed by legacy and factions. Lean is about observation and discussion to come up with something new. We’re clearly talking about very different things, but the deeper question remains: how do we create the conditions for everyone to be able to help themselves by developing their own kaizen spirit? Too much hardship, and there will be no space for kaizen and no incentive to try to work with others. Too much nurturing, and there will be no reason to improve and to develop autonomy.

It’s a mystery.


Michael Ballé photograph

Michael Ballé is co-founder of the Institut Lean France. An associate researcher at Telecom ParisTech, he holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Social Sciences and Knowledge Sciences. Michael is a best-selling author and an engaging speaker, and managing partner of ESG Consultants. He also works as a lean executive coach in various fields, from manufacturing to engineering, services to healthcare.

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