Lean Lessons from COVID

You may recognize the quote from Friedrich Nietzsche – or more recently from Kelly Clarkson 🙂  “What doesn’t kill you makes your stronger.”   I’ve thought about this often in the last 22 months in context of the horrible pandemic and more parochially in relation to the efforts of many client organizations to sustain continuous improvement in a period of great uncertainty.  There are more than a few parallels.  Here are some  that occur to me:

Burning platforms are finite.   17th Century playwright, Samuel Johnson said, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”   The sense of urgency generated by immediate threats, commonly referred to as burning platforms, has kick started many a Lean transformation including at Toyota where, as Taiichi Ohno noted  “The oil crisis opened our eyes,” as the event that kicked TPS into high gear in the 1970’s. Similarly, the existential threat of COVID-19 enabled an intense period of historic collaboration between government and industry to produce vaccines in record time.    But what happens when the  perceived crisis is past?  We celebrate and take little break, which too often becomes an indefinite backslide.  Shigeo Shingo warned that complacency is a killer of improvement. Too many organizations get comfortable after an initial burst of improvement.  Contrary to the popular “critical mass” metaphor, I think there is no such thing in continuous improvement.  Organizations that are able keep the continuous improvement flywheel turning are blessed with leaders who work tirelessly to renew a shared sense  of purpose that extends beyond the burning platform.

Myopia is Normal.  W. Edwards Deming described ‘lack of long   term thinking’ as a management sin. But, I’ve regrettably concluded after 50 years in the workforce that long-term perspective is just a very rare capability.  I don’t expect it any more than I expect everyone to have 20/20 vision.   Many executives talk a good game about vision and strategy,  but their actions are more tactical, reactive and transactional.  And, unfortunately, no amount of tactical gyrations can overcome a lack of strategic thinking – a painful lesson from the last two years.  Speaking at a conference in 2003, my teacher, Hajime Oba, was asked why American  companies did not see more benefit from TPS.  He responded, “Two reasons: 1) American management does not understand what TPS is, and 2) they are driven by quarterly earnings.”  Fact is, we look to our executive leadership for that view over the horizon.  While most of us are busy in the trenches, those super-normal visionary leaders are looking out for our futures. 

We are ruled by emotion.   Shigeo Shingo noted “People take action only after they are persuaded, and persuasion is achieved not by reason, but through emotions.”  Even if you’re the boss, according to former Toyota exec, Gary Convis, it’s essential to “Lead as though you have no authority.”  This advice has been helpful to me in my career, but it is easy to slip into a disrespectful and disengaging  ‘just-do-it” mode.   Leaders are charged with bridging the disconnect between reason and emotion.  We count on them to make reasoned decisions based on science and then persuade the rest of us to buy-in and collaborate. 

Life is an infinite game.   From philosopher James Carse comes the idea that the status quo will only change when we fail to take it seriously.   He cites the Berlin wall as an example. Decades of fighting only proved to galvanize the differences between two sides.  The wall was symbolic of a finite game – one that succeeded only because it pitted two sides against one another.  When we talk about win-win propositions in business we are proposing an infinite game.  In fact, one of the biggest obstacles to continuous improvement is business factionalization: sales versus operations, marketing versus engineering, factory versus office, customer versus suppliers, winners versus losers.   These are our Berlin walls.  The leader’s job is to help us to not take them seriously.  Call that transformational.

As we say good-bye to another plague-riddled year, I’m hopefully subscribing to Nietzsche’s aphorism; that our collective experience from the last two years will only make us stronger in 2022.  Here’s to resilience!  And also, here’s to leaders everywhere who will:

  • Share a sense of purpose and direction.
  • Think long-term – over the horizon.
  • Persuade us to follow.
  • Bring us all together – one team. 

Happy New Year!

O.L.D.    

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