The glass

Now here’s a little parable, or joke:

The optimist says that the glass is half-full.
The pessimist says that the glass is half-empty.
The lean consultant recommends finding a smaller glass.

This parable, or joke, is a pocket-sized exemplar of what’s good — and what’s insufficient — about lean thinking.

What’s good

There’s an acknowledgement of contingency. People have their own beliefs, perspectives, and intuitions. These can be respected without reference to validity or necessity.

It’s a response to the situation as encountered. No part of this story is about finding individual culpability or placing blame. Neither is there any discussion about how things “should” be, or even how much water is “enough”. (Although how much water people want is a different matter entirely.)

It’s about making a discrete, intentional change. You know, given an existing situation that isn’t to everybody’s satisfaction, even an arbitrary change might wind up making things better.

What’s insufficient

The proposed resolution isn’t necessarily a useful improvement all by itself. It could be meaningless tidying up, and could in fact be valuable;
either way it’s disconnected from the larger environment and intents shared by both the optimist and pessimist. The basic principles that were bundled up into lean (a) have to do with correlating the work everybody is doing with the actual purpose of the organization they work in and (b) very rarely come up in “lean work” or “lean projects”.

There’s a tremendous amount of fatigue out there related to lean thinking and lean transformations. We’ve all seen this kind of thing before: feel-good rearranging of deck chairs; a dollop of anal retentiveness over box lunches and cheerful whiteboards.

Unfortunately, that’s skepticism that lean has earned over the decades, and you have to respect people who feel that way.

Lean and related jargon are terms that have reached peak fluff. (Example: last week a trainer for a proprietary, nightmarishly over-complicated content management system told me that the product in question was lean because “you can administer it from a web browser and not a desktop application and it has great ROI.” That is a direct quote.) All this damage is the reason I try to talk around the term “lean”, and prefer instead to focus on the underlying practices and motivations — which, ironically, are usually as novel and exciting to people as lean itself is overtired and stale.

No capital L

What is lean, anyways? Is it a system, a tool, or a cult? As always, depends on who’s buying, and who’s selling. Here’s my advice:

If you want to learn about lean, read only books from before 01980, with one exception: W. Edwards Deming’s Out of the Crisis. This was published in 01982 but is in fact a retrospective of his decades of work. If you do read the book, count how many times he uses the word “lean”, and then use it about as often as he does.

Also, you might want to get yourself a smaller glass.