Seeing Through Lean Lenses

It is often said that, “Once you begin to understand Lean, the world will never look the same!” Is that true for you? Has it happened to you yet?

As a consultant, I have spent many years working on a complex problem: how can we make our organizations more successful, more effective, and better places to spend the huge percentage of our time that constitutes our work life? One might think that solving and resolving this problem would be of interest to everyone, especially organization leaders and managers. Yet, the second problem with which I have wrestled all my career, and continue to, is: how to overcome resistance to change?

I actually started my career working in the treatment of addictions. I learned both personally and professionally that whatever the change we are trying to make, there is a critical turning point that must be reached: the realization that there just might be something better out there, something that will provide a better set of life solutions for a better quality of life with less of the downsides of my current life solutions.

People don’t intentionally use bad solutions and cause themselves problems, or get sub-optimal results. That would be contrary to basic self-interest. People use the best solutions they know to solve the common daily problems we all experience throughout our lives – like how to make money, how to spend free time, how to build healthy relationships, how to deal with feelings, or how to find meaning in life. Addicts don’t so much have a drug or alcohol “problem” as a drug or alcohol solution to life’s problems.

If they set aside their set of addictive solutions, there must be some better solution set that yields better results, with less pain, or they will go back to the comfortably habitual, but dysfunctional solution set. The only way to develop a better set of solution is to learn and practice new ways of thinking and behaving until the better results start rolling in and the new behavior starts to feel natural and more effortless. It takes time and effort. Better solutions yield better results and better results reinforce the new solutions.

Organizations experience the same dynamic: why give up our current practice? Why change what is comfortable and familiar and has worked at least to some extent? Even if we want to change our organization’s performance, where do we start? We’re doing everything we know how to do now!

W. Edwards Deming, one of the fathers of Total Quality Management, noted that new knowledge does not come from within the old system. It must come from outside, from learning. Trying out a new Lean practice or tool, such as Pull Planning, is a good start, but to really “go Lean” we have to learn and apply the five basic Lean Principles and understand the TPS definitions of waste. Then we have to go to our worksites (the “gemba”) and apply them.

Lean is that better solution set. Lean is an operational strategy, a new set of principles about how work should be structured, a set of new tools, techniques and behaviors. It’s a new way of looking at the world, especially the world of work.

The realization that there really is a “better way”, sometimes feels like a conversion, like a veil has lifted. It’s not a spiritual conversion, it’s a rational conversion. I started to embrace Lean as I read, saw, and experienced Lean principles and practices at work. It just made more and more and more sense. I read about Taiichi Ohno, the Toyota Production System (TPS) sensei who could look at a factory floor for 10 minutes, break out the crowbars, rearrange the production equipment and get better throughput instantly. I worked with Bart Huthwaite, a Lean Design guru who could look at virtually any product and assembly process and immediately see ways to redesign the product to reduce part count, assembly errors and difficulty, and to reduce both production and life-cycle costs. Clearly, these two experts were seeing things that I couldn’t. They were looking through a set of lenses that sharpened their perception of waste, of process, and of value. They knew something that I didn’t, and I set out to learn it too.

When we were just organizing the Northern California Community of Practice for LCI, we offered a 1-hour “Introduction to Lean Construction” for newcomers – just before they attended their first monthly meeting. As one of the presenters, I was able to create my own approach, and I hit on the idea of “Learning to See Through Lean Lenses”. It was an attempt to show, through photos of actual projects I was working on and application of Lean Principles, that opportunities for improvement were everywhere around us. I have recently updated that presentation with another 15 years of experience, new project examples, and new insights.

Join me and our Lean Construction Blog Hosts on 20 June, for an interactive webinar. We will start with an overview of the original Lean Principles, review the ten TPS forms of waste, and then have some fun looking at real project examples, applying our new Lean Lenses, and seeing what root causes, what cost and quality implications, and some aspects of the work systems that produced the conditions being reviewed that could be changed.



Get some new insights, start seeing differently and further develop your “depth and breadth perception”. Start seeing everything around you, from your current project, to your everyday experiences with traffic, restaurant service, healthcare delivery, air travel, and just about everything else through a new set of Lean Lenses.


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