Does Lean Stifle Creativity?

It is possible that the TWI Job Methods program had some influence in the concepts used in Kaizen Teian (creative suggestion) idea systems in Japan, most notably the questioning method. Despite the success of idea systems in Japan, numerous experts claim that monetary rewards are a must in the U.S. if we are to hope for any creativity to come out of our people. Most people I have mentioned suggestion systems to recoil in disgust or horror: "To expensive!" or "Waste of time!" are the knee jerk responses, if not conventional wisdom when it comes to the topic.

I know of two companies in the U.S., outside of Toyota that have implemented over 50,000 improvement ideas in a one year period. Cash incentives for each idea do not exist in the program. How then, do they defy the experts? Is this level of activity only for the short term? Maybe so. In the meantime, here are some thoughts on the matter...

When we coerce people into doing things, we often get the opposite result of what we desire. People intrinsically don't resent criticism and they don't resist change. But in the real world, they often do because the criticism doesn't come from within; it comes from an external source, usually their supervisor. This is what stubborn, resistant "cavemen" really mean when they say "you are doing Lean TO me, not WITH me." By the way, cavemen is a name given to people resistant to Lean improvements. "Enlightened" professionals use this term in jest during Lean training - slapping people in the face - under the guise of a "fun" PowerPoint presentation. How arrogant can we be? Do we know everything? How does this follow the principle, Respect for People?

I believe doing Lean TO people is what really stifles their creativity. People will lock up like a mule keep their great ideas to themselves. "Why should I provide a good idea, even if it benefits me, only to be criticized again and again? Is this what we have to look forward to with Lean? This isn't worth the grief and trouble." People will find the easiest path to happiness and avoiding criticism helps a person get there sooner, even if avoiding criticism is not in their best interest. What is the cost of avoiding criticism? In the case of suggestion systems and coercion, this is why cash incentives do not matter.

There is proof of this. In the real world, people change vehicles, clothes, appliances, homes, schools, work, citizenship, learn languages, change careers, education, read new genres, write, blog, invent, build new things and in general are demanding new changes from industry, friends, politicians, family and neighbors at ALL TIMES. In fact, people will pay hard earned cash for small changes, or even go into staggering debt for a life altering change. Yet, we think we have to pay them to come up with good ideas.

People do NOT resist change in their real lives, they seek it out even though the result may be sometimes slow to realize. It is us as managers that don't recognize this paradox in our artificial work world. To paint the human race with a broad stroke as unchanging, stubborn "cement-heads" (another derogatory term I've seen in Lean training slides...SLAP!) is not helpful for a continuous improvement paradigm. In fact, everyday as managers, we take people out of their real world and put them into an artificial world of work that, if done that way in the household, wouldn't make sense on so many different levels. And when they don't conform to this nonsensical world, they are punished. When we think about it, we have probably learned more about "lean" from life and work experience then from work and lean consultants. Why then should we expect people to comply to our artificial rules about creativity, improvement and standardization, when all we do is criticize only what they know?

This is why the TWI skills are so important. They provide a simple (better) framework for common sense workplace improvement and coaching, learning, advising, teaching - NOT criticizing and telling. In fact, I would dare say that constructive criticism is implicitly discouraged with TWI J-skills. Instead, the name of the game here is fact-based coaching for self-discovery and self-improvement. Leaders teach others improvement and standardization skills, so people can self-assess, self-criticize and self-improve. We don't tell people how to do their job. We only guide them in finding the best way to improve it and standardize it on their own. This is where the fuel for real creativity comes from, self-realization and ongoing, immediate needs. The only compulsory agreement between a person and their leader is that they try as best they can at what the leader is teaching them.

Example: Cleaning the kids room. We could say: "Your room is a pig stye, no? Go clean your room or you lose TV time tonight!" Or we could go to the area itself and ask, "Why are there toys all over the floor?" The answer may be, "I don't have room for all of my toys," or "My room isn't big enough!", perhaps one honest child will say, "I don't want to, it is too much work!"

As a parent leader, I can ask what my son can do about it. "Do you have toys that you don't use?" This may lead to some better self-discovery for my son that leads to creative solutions like donating the unused toys to other kids who would like to play with them or holding a yard sale so he can save some money. (likely to buy more toys, uggh.) The point is this: the easy way is the short-term-results-oriented-command-and-control-git-R-done method. The harder, long term problem solving method is the way of coaching and leading.

What do leaders really need to teach others without telling them what to do? Direct observation of problems as they occur in the workplace is the first thing to teach and fortunately this concept is built into all TWI J-skills. "What do you see here? Why do you think this happened? Can you look into this and find out more about it? Can I follow up with you about this on Friday?" The second thing leaders can teach is that ONLY a questioning attitude, NOT a telling attitude, is what will lead people to continuously create waste-free standardization. The third is that people must base their improvements on facts, not opinion. What you feel is one thing, what improves the situation is a whole other matter, let's stick to the facts so your solution will work for the long term. This third thing forces us to be really good at the fourth thing: follow-up. Why? Because as everybody already knows, things change...a problem is never really static. What you thought was the problem today is something else tomorrow. We need to follow up with two things as the situation changes: a) get a commitment from someone that they will try their best to work out the problems and b) be reliable and always be there to ask how you can help them.

That's just a few things, but these simple concepts, if only used by all workplace leaders, can go along way towards getting nearly 50K creative improvements realized in your company.

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At August 4, 2009 at 6:07 PM , Blogger Darrin Thompson said...

If cement head was good enough for Taichi Ohno, it's good enough for me.

Who do you think you are anyway?

I had a similar exchange with a friend a few days ago. He wrote some fairly strong statements with a little fire in them. I pointed out that he was insulting the people he was trying to persuade and that not helping his cause. He said that he was "okay" with offending, as it spurred people to action. I left it at that.

At August 13, 2009 at 3:59 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Darrint,

I'm just another guy trying to figure this stuff out!

I wonder if Ohno wasn't refering to supervisors and managers when he was talking about cement heads. Although I don't disagree with him, does that mean I think he is right in doing so?

Look...in Japan, I'm told that it is perfectly normal to be 'shamed' into doing better. But over here, let's be honest: in the U.S. we ain't hired for our modesty and humility! When is the last time a manager put on their resume, "...and my humility is second to none!" The shame thing doesn't fly here, for the most part, but probably creates more resentment.

However, a good dose of humility might go a long way in making our management practices better. And it would certainly open up our managers minds to genuinely be interested in what people think about how to tackle a problem.


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