/Where to look for hope in dark times

Where to look for hope in dark times

Lean in times of darkness

FEATURE – When the clouds gather, it’s tempting to throw in the towel and ask, “What is it all for?”. The author tells us why the kaizen spirit should be our beacon now more than ever.

Words: Michael Ballé, lean author, executive coach and co-founder of Institut Lean France.

Photo credit: Drop of Light / Shutterstock

How to speak of lean in times of darkness? What does performance matter when innocent people get bombed in the name of absurd and monstrous ambition? What can lean do against epidemics, war, famine? As Robert King Merton, one of the founding fathers of American sociology, once taught me: if people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences – regardless of how absurd the defining, or how tragic the consequences.

Humanity progresses on two parallel tracks, two strands of civilizational DNA: technical progress and social progress. Technical progress means creating tools to master nature and bend it to our will. It is what allows us produce vaccines in record time to fight a pandemic. Social progress is about creating a peaceful, safe, fair and creative society where each person can pursue their own happiness free of fear, want, humiliation or despair. It is what allows us to support the global research structures to develop a vaccine, mass produce it and distribute it as widely as possible. We can easily measure ourselves on both dimensions: how quickly and well we solve the technical problem and how fast and inclusively we spread the benefits.

These two factors are always present, but do not always work in unison. When they do, their synergy takes us to the moon or produces the green revolution that massively increased food production in the 1960s. More often they don’t. Fast technical progress tends to concentrate power in the hands of the few who caught the innovation wave or own the critical resources. The mass production of automobiles created the Detroit big 3 and made oil-producing countries wealthy beyond reason (often triggering the “Dutch disease,” an oil boom in a country often leading to its manufacturing decline). Currently, the tech boom is making us all live in the private fiefdoms of a few individuals, such as Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Page and Brin and so on. They own the service we use to conduct our daily lives. They make the rules as they see fit, and we live by them.

Fast technological progress also drives fundamental societal shifts, with their winners and losers. As mining and manufacturing have moved east, pulling millions out of poverty in Asia in the process, and as the West has focused on digital techs and services, entire segments of our populations have been abandoned and left to fend for themselves, without the needed investment in re-skilling and support of their lifestyles. They haven’t disappeared, they’re still here, and they are very much part of our polity, joining extremes to fight as they can the technocrats that have dismissed and ill-treated them. Nothing makes you angrier than abandonment and hopelessness.

Social progress, on the other hand, can slow technical progress down as well as enable it. It imposes restrictions, demands guarantees, as we’ve seen with transgenic food production, and tries to spread more widely the benefits of progress through regulation, anti-trust and other forms of government control. Social progress can also accelerate the adoption of innovation, like high-bandwidth Internet thanks to governments investment in infrastructure, as well as create the conditions for innovation through education and fundamental research facilities. For instance, the Internet grew out of a US Defense project, and Tim Berners Lee invented the World Wide Web while working at CERN.

As a rule, rapid change concentrates power in the hands of a few individuals, either because only they truly understand how to use the technology or because they are in a situation to appropriate vital resources – we can think of the parallel lives of Bill Gates, the richest person in the world in 2017, whose wealth came from mastering the software needed for the personal computer revolution, or of Carlos Slim,  the richest person in the world in 2013, who progressively created a conglomerate from skillfully dealing with the Mexican government.

Men – it’s mostly men – and women will seek power as they can and as much they can. Once they have power, they use it. Bill Gates wants to eradicate Malaria in his lifetime. Musk dreams of colonizing Mars and Bezos of life in space. Vladimir Putin has spent his life acquiring power in Russia. He is now using it to invade Ukraine. If men define situations as real they are real in their consequences. This is doubly so when men have so much power. If Vladimir Putin says Ukraine needs “denazification”, Ukrainians get shelled and invaded.

Innovations create wealth, but they also change the balance of winners and losers in a society and allow a few individuals to accrue vast amounts of power, which they will then use to advance their preferred projects. These projects can either bolster social progress, creating the groundwork for the next generation of innovation, or advance crazy or destructive causes. There is no end to that cycle and no way to predict how it goes because no one can anticipate how individuals will define situations in their own minds – nor what the real consequences will be.

How does lean come into play here? At the root of successful lean transformations, research with my colleagues Dan Jones, Jacques Chaize and Orry Fiume has identified a specific form of Lean Thinking, a reasoning path to lead to superior outcomes and not just achieve better results.

Much of the difficulties companies, or indeed countries, find themselves in, we believe, is due to the fact that powerful individuals seek “ultra-solutions” (a term coined by Palo Alto’s Paul Watzlawick) – solutions which solve a large-scale problem in one swift stroke. Simple solutions that can be implemented through applying power directly on a pressure point. Solutions, however, that rarely solve anything in real life but instead so radically change the game that no one remembers what the problem was in the first place, creating endless misery and unhappiness in the process, and ultimately failing – which leads to the next ultra-solution.

The reason powerful people are attracted to ultra-solutions is that they follow a reasoning path that starts with belief superiority: as they are successful and powerful, surely their beliefs and opinions must be truer than other people’s. Their thinking follows a “4D” pattern:

  • Define: they define situations according to their worldview, certain that their understanding is better than anyone else’s and therefore framing reality in simplistic terms and therefore defining the results they seek in often bizarre ways.
  • Decide: Once the situation has been defined in terms of setting and objectives, options are outlined to make a decision. These options tend to be of the “go or no-go” sort. They are created by the definition of the situation and allow very little creative or nuanced thinking to deal with reality in a multiplicity of way.
  • Drive: Now that an option has been chosen, it must be executed. Since few people read the mind of the leader, this mostly involves issuing instructions, putting pressure so that they are applied (often by creating a cadre of people whose main job is to ensure compliance), and controlling the implementation.
  • Deal: reality rarely conforms with ultra-solutions, plans get bogged down and unexpected reactions or consequences arise from all quarters. Since few people have been involved with either decision-making or planning, few are able to adequately respond, which leaves the leader to make the deals he or she can, while either escalating, diverting or backpedaling on his or her course of action.

This 4D thinking process is exacerbated by power. Beyond belief superiority, cognitive research has revealed the normal mental biases that lead to 4D. First, in any complex context, our mind narrows the situation down to what it can control – which is often not much. Secondly, motivated thinking makes us cherry pick the information or ideas that feed the flames of our pre-existing beliefs and disconfirming facts are often seen as dissent to be stamped down. Thirdly, the availability bias makes us give much higher probabilities to information to which we have just been exposed, further accentuating the two previous mechanisms. Finally, we naturally attribute successes to ourselves and setbacks to circumstances, frequently to others and due to the “fundamental attribution error,” to their character defects. This leads us to “enemyfy” one another, to take Adam Kahane’s term (I see things differently, you are wrong, they are the enemy, etc).

These mental processes are perfectly normal and derive from the way our brains are put together – we all follow these same mental patterns – but regular people have to contend with other’s opinions, perspectives, demands and so learn to amend their views, change their minds and compromise. With power, you can force your ideas on others (or pressure them into shutting up) and protect your mental models from any challenge.

Thirty years of wondering what makes successful lean transformation different has convinced us that, through practicing lean with a sensei, lean leaders adopt a “lean thinking” reasoning process. This different thought process doesn’t start in one’s head, with one’s preconceptions, but on the ground, at the gemba, where you learn to find problems. Finding problems means discovering how the situation appears to various actors on the ground, how power is configured locally and addresses different audiences, and what each group considers to be a problem (or not a problem) and within its capabilities or remit (or without).

Finding problems means figuring out what outcomes different people would prefer and what concrete obstacles they see to achieving this. This doesn’t mean abandoning your own desired outcomes and technical understanding of the situation, but accepting that others have different views and getting a more complete picture of the situation to avoid dramatic miscalculations and missteps (not that these won’t happen, but you’ll recognize them sooner when they do). The aim of finding problems is to hopefully create a consensus on a problem all agree is a problem and want to solve. Sometimes this happens quickly, sometimes it’s a slow process in itself involving difficult negotiations. Even if a consensus can’t be reached at first, problem finding on the ground means clarifying who the main players are, what they’d like to redress and what they would consider a workable solution.

Problem finding often leads to problem facing: the cause of the problem is an elephant in the room. Everyone sees it but no one wants to mention it, because there is neither an obvious solution nor a clear route to a solution. At this stage, facing means accepting we’re going to have to learn to do something we currently do not know how to do, or accept to change something we have not hitherto considered changing and are not sure how to go about it. Problem facing means confronting a problem we have no control over and committing to finding a way to solve it – even if it feels daunting. Problem facing is a key part of Lean Thinking: accepting a challenge even though it seems right now out of reach, but with the certainty that with courage, creativity and teamwork we can make a dent in the problem and discover paths to new solutions.

Challenging problems can’t be solved alone. Difficult change can’t be carried out by fiat. Solving hard problems requires teamwork, many people collaborating towards a solution. Such collaboration is made easier by a strong frame. Framing is how we structure our mental models of reality. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is a frame. Man-made climate change is a frame. Gender equality is a frame. Lean, indeed, is a frame, as in seeking better customer outcomes, accelerating flows, creating a culture of problem-solving and continuous improvement for the complete elimination of waste. A good frame captures the essence of the problem as well as a sense of the solution. In the lean tradition, describing the first Lexus as “drive like BMW, comfort of a Cadillac” is a better frame than “Luxury Export to the US”. A good frame allows anyone to grasp the problem and join the search for a solution. Somehow a good frame will capture ethos, our character and why we want to do this, pathos, an emotional appeal as well as logos, the persuasive logic of the description.

Framing leads to forming. For instance, when Toyota faces the problem of radically reducing its impact on the environment it frames it as the “Toyota environmental challenge 2050”: 1/ New vehicles zero CO2 emissions, 2/ life cycle zero CO2 emissions, 3/ Plant zero CO2 emissions, 4/ Minimizing and optimizing water usage, 5/ establishing a recycling-based society and systems, 6/ establishing a future society in harmony with nature. Having framed the challenge clearly, it then encourages all people to come up with step forward and to share their learning and solutions. It does not look for one silver bullet idea that will solve everything at once. Large scale solutions are born of inspired individuals trying new things and sharing their findings with others who will try again in different contexts until all can converge on the more promising paths. This is the empirical thought engine at the heart of scientific thinking and the key to building new solutions on people’s insights and initiatives.

This 4F thought process doesn’t come naturally (4D is much faster and much easier). It requires discipline. But it yields far superior outcomes in a shorter time simply because it draws from cooperation rather than subordination:

  • Find the real-life problems people are experiencing to understand their outlook, share your own perspective, discover concrete roadblocks and create consensus on what outcomes are preferable and what technical issues must be cracked.
  • Face the elephant in the room, the key part of the problem no-one knows how to approach or the change no-one had considered before. Ask yourself “what is the first thing we must learn?” rather than look for a full, ready-made, scalable solution.
  • Frame the challenge in clear, inspiring terms that convey character, emotion and inevitable logic, so that anyone can understand what you are trying to accomplish and join your cause.
  • Form solutions from the ideas and initiatives of all people involved. Not all experiments will pan out, but all are welcome and all findings are useful, failures most of all. Build complex responses from making ideas converge and combine until a clear path to success appears and can then be invested in more widely.

Once catastrophe has struck, how can any of this help? Faced with impending disaster, we often feel that all we can do is follow our instincts and react as best we can. Yet, teaching ourselves the difference between 4D and 4F thinking can make a big difference to how things play out. First, it can help us value simple countermeasures more than we usually do. To escape sideration – the blank feeling of watching cataclysm unfold without knowing what to do – and focus on solving concrete problems at hand. Sure, humble countermeasures are rarely smart or scalable solutions, but they are a practical way into the problem. They won’t solve it, but they will teach us more about it – far more than following our panicked minds in jumping to ultra-solutions.

Then it will also help us spot when others – or ourselves – fall down the rabbit hole of 4D ultra-solutions and unavoidably make things worse. Recognizing the rhetoric of define-decide-drive (and eventually deal) helps diagnose tunnel vision and obsession with this or that solution – the feeling that if we don’t obtain something specific, nothing else can work or is worth it. Problem finding and problem facing open up the field and listening to different voices generally leads to unexpected new ideas and paths to victory.

Finally, large catastrophic problems or small mundane ones require the same thinking skills, if not the same resources. Practicing 4F thinking daily teaches observation, listening, analysis and teamwork. The very process of 4F thinking also leads to constructing one’s own network of co-problem solvers one can count on when things get hard. In attacking today’s problems in full 4D fashion you diminish your ability to solve tomorrow’s problems by turning people against you and then forcing them to submit, whereas solving problems in 4F mode builds up networks and learning and, with them, your ability to solve problems tomorrow – be they small or large.

Can we find hope in what we do? With darker and darker clouds growing on the horizon, is there any sense in continuing? I believe we can and there is. That is precisely the point of lean. Unbridled finance cultures lead to concentration of power in the hands of despots, be they rulers or CEOs. In turn, this leads to colossal mistakes, cover-ups and ultimately loss of human lives and meaning. Conversely, every day we work towards making things work for people and by people, we put our shoulder to the wheel to mend the world. Every time we listen to the voice of people on the ground and better understand their problems, the outcomes they seek and the solutions they see, we turn things around. We can’t control world outcomes, but we are the masters of what we do. This is the spirit of kaizen, even in dark times. Even more so in dark times.


Michael Ballé photo

Michael Ballé is a lean author, executive coach and co-founder of Institut Lean France.