Consult with Humility

A friend and colleague remarked to me recently “You know the Lean market has become mature,” implying a depth and breadth of Lean understanding in industry that I have rarely seen myself.

Standardized work, for example, almost always looks like time setting to me, an occasional and cursory exercise by industrial engineers to shave seconds from a static work sequence in order reduce apparent labor costs.   Workers are not even asked to participate.   And in those instances where a standard work chart is actually posted, it’s rarely up to date, usually the one-time effort of a long past kaizen event.  One manager challenged me recently, “Our workers don’t need that, they know their jobs very well,” a comment that exposed his misunderstanding of the concept on several levels.   When we then watched the work and compared it to the standardized work chart posted next to the worker, it became apparent pretty quickly that there was an extra person in process, that standard work in process was ignored and that Takt time represented a minimum value.  “The chart is really not for the workers,” I replied, “it’s for you!   Do you see why?  Can you see what’s happening?”  So, the technique that Taiichi Ohno declared to be the foundation for continuous improvement is too often just another piece of Lean visual pollution.   This unfortunately is the floor condition I observe at many sites:  Not mature, not even immature.  More like forty years of standing still, parroting tools without understanding either the details or the big picture.  Doing the same thing over and over, as they say, and expecting different results.


On the other hand, we consultants seem to be getting smarter and smarter all the time.   We’ve become experts, Senseis, masters, mentors, coaches, and even gurus and rock stars.  We have belts of many colors and framed certificates to show for it.  I wrote a post last year about us pundits, describing an experience I had with consultant braggadocio twenty-five years ago.  Just since last year, however, the proliferation of boastful claims made by us pundits seems to have SATURATED the Internet, most of it Lean Spam.  Some days I think there are more pundits than practitioners.  And while I’m a tad skeptical about the real TPS experience of many website claims, this Lean market has no doubt matured from a selling standpoint.

Thanks to the web, selling Lean has become a battle of keywords and search engine optimization (a topic for a later blog post.)  It’s important to be a web celebrity in this new marketing game, but that does not necessarily imply excellence.  I admit, I’m playing the game; this blog is an example.  Without social media it would be not possible to reach our customers.  But full disclosure: Customers tell me “You’re famous, you’re the Toast Guy.”  I respond, “No, the video may be famous, but not me.  I’m a student of TPS. ”   Along the way, I try to co-learn with my customers and associates.  Continuous improvement and continuous learning after all are two sides of the same coin.  But “Lean Guru?”    Let’s get real.  There might be a few of those around, but for most us it’s just a sales pitch, a key word to drive traffic to our websites.

With all of the marketing hype and ever more superlative descriptions of consulting experience and talent, my question is why are so few organizations continuously improving?    Why for example do so few managers even understand the how-to or why of Standardized Work?   “Where’s the beef?” 

One customer confided in me recently that after three lackluster years of lean implementation working with a well-known consulting firm, he asked the question, “Why after the initial wave of improvement are we not able to sustain the gains?”   The lead consultant replied,  “Because your employees are not as talented as our consultants.”   Whether this arrogance is just marketing hype or whether we actually believe it, if Lean consultants are providing value only to themselves and not to their customers, that is the ultimate hypocrisy.

Right after I became a consultant seventeen years ago, a valued teacher and long-time TPS practitioner from Toyota agreed to discuss my decision with me.  He is one of only a few persons I have met in the last thirty years who might be worthy of the claims of consulting excellence that appear daily on the web, although he would not use those words himself.  “Mr. O,” I confided,  “I love continuous improvement and problem solving, but many times I have trouble understanding a problem and cannot see the solution.”  Mr. O smiled, and shook his head and to my amazement replied, “Yes I know exactly what you mean.  I have that problem too.”    That was all he needed to say.   Teach what you know, but don’t pretend to teach what you don’t.  Always be a student.

The answer to the “Where’s the beef?” question I think is ‘consult with humility.’  If you are a consultant, internal or external, can you be vulnerable or must you pretend always to be the Guru? Share a story.


PS I’m presenting a 45-minute webinar on July 19th – “Coping with the Summer Doldrums: How to Use Vacation-time to Advance Your Lean Transformation“. Hope you can tune in.

PPS GBMP’s Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference agenda is locked and loaded. The complete schedule, along with session abstracts, is available on the conference website – and I think it’s the best agenda we’ve ever had. More than 60% of the sessions are interactive – forget about face-forward presentations and endless PPT slides. Participate in activities and discussions, learn new things and grow your Lean support network. And now is a great time to get your team registered to ensure your spots for the October event. I sincerely hope to see you there.

4 thoughts on “Consult with Humility

  1. Jerry Pisani

    Hi Bruce,

    Your points are relevant; Managements’ attention span is short and many observe that they have implemented lean and reaped what can be gained and are ready to move on. This is rarely the truth whether it is statistical process control, total quality management, MRP, process re-engineering or Lean.

    The consulting community must look at itself as you have expressed. What tools does the user community have to evaluate their progress on the lean journey? How do I measure progress with regard to lean? Am I learning the language of lean or the practice of lean?

    Maybe the consultant should get a % of the value added rather than a flat fee. It is the old joke about who was committed, the chicken or the pig.


    Jerry Pisani

  2. h2bb

    Learning to start a fire was a fine lean innovation. So was the wheel. Humans are naturally lean. If we were not naturally lean, you would not be reading this. Some humans are more lean than others. For example, Ford was very lean.

    For long term lean, you must identify your “Fords.” Simple to do. Walk up to each employee, look them in the eyes and ask them for a list of past improvements, present ideas, projects from past jobs. etc. A handful out of a hundred will knock your socks off. Make them your lean leaders.

    Most likely, these lean leaders are not held in high regards by the party bosses. What was the blog post about your future wife being considered a trouble maker for being lean?

  3. Anthony DoMoe

    Thanks for the work you do on this blog. I think that personal humility is essential to practicing lean; without it you are essentially leaving the team out of the project. If you already know everything then there is no need for a project team (and we both know that it just doesn’t work that way). “Teach what you know, but don’t pretend to teach what you don’t. Always be a student.” Great advice!!!

  4. Pingback: Lean Wizards | Old Lean Dude

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