What Can be Learned About Lean from an Arts Perspective

Have you ever thought about adding to your perspective on Lean and your Lean practices in design and construction? Most of what we understand about Lean is based on observations made by people with an engineering and scientific perspective on work. This way of looking at work has been extremely valuable, and still there is a sense that Lean may be missing something if it is to become more fully practiced. A recent workshop exploring the arts perspective of Lean was a first step in expanding our understanding of Lean and how to best help others see the value in the Lean approach to work.

The Arts Perspective Workshop

This past May, some Lean Thinkers - including Robert Martichenko, Deborah McGee, Niklas Modig, Karyn Ross, John Shook, David Verble, Bryan Wahl, and me - met with seven artists for three days to reflect upon Lean and share our perspectives. The workshop goal was to interpret and observe Lean thinking through the “eyes” of an artist. Our expectation was that the artists’ perspective would expand and enhance how we think about Lean. Their perspective was of particular interest because much of our understanding about Lean comes from engineering and science perspectives. The discussion tapped into the insights of the participants, who together made observations about Lean thinking from a different perspective than most practitioners in the Lean community.

Figure 1: Artists participating in the workshop following the tour of the Georgetown factory, along with David Verble, Joanna McGuffey and author Tom Richert.

The artists in the workshop had never been exposed to Lean, at most they only heard about it in a superficial way. We felt this was important as we were seeking their perspectives purely based on the workshop experience and not preconceived notions. Day one of the workshop included discussions and Lean simulations. In day two we toured the Toyota factory in Georgetown, Kentucky, with an orientation and debrief led by David Verble. [Figure 1] The third day started with a discussion led by John Shook from the Lean Enterprise Institute, followed by the artists spending six hours reflecting upon and sharing their perspectives on Lean. Joanna McGuffey moderated the artists’ discussion using the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® methodology. [Figure 2] The methodology is a facilitated communication process for shared thinking, problem-solving, and group discussion based on visual metaphor and story development. Lean Project Consulting and the Lean Construction Institute supported the workshop.

Figure 2: Artists describing their perspectives on Lean during the final day of the workshop.

Workshop Observations

The workshop and subsequent discussions highlighted that while current culture imagines scientific and artistic thinking as being very different, as people we all face similar types of problems in our work. The artists had three observations from the workshops.

Their first observation was that when Lean processes are working effectively, they are essentially the creative process. They recognized the Plan-Do-Check-Act process as an integral part of the way they work but did not label it as such. They saw their creative ethic, and especially observation skills, as something they could teach people using Lean methods. For example, typically quantitative observations are favored over qualitative observations. This may partly stem from limited observational skills.

Their second observation was how Lean Thinking developed at Toyota. They recognized “arts and spirituality” as the “roots of Lean” and perceived these as being integrated into how Toyota works. The spirituality influence became apparent to them in a slide John Shook shared that included Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Shinto beliefs as ingredients informing the Toyota Production System (TPS). The arts influence for the group is an extension of the spirituality influence. The artists declared that current Lean practices do not reflect these “arts and spirituality” influences. They observed that a profit-centered focus for Lean in discussions regarding value creation opposed the values informing TPS.

Their third observation is that Lean lacks a language. This statement was made on several occasions. When pressed on the reason for this assessment, it did not appear to them to be a clear way of talking about Lean. There was an expectation that artists would see the language of Lean as incomplete, but not altogether missing. They were exposed to a healthy dose of Lean vocabulary, yet what they heard was not relevant to their way of working. This is likely because as we work with Lean practices we reduce concerns to only the facts, leaving out the story that informs those facts.


These observations form one explanation as to why Lean practices are not more widespread, both in the AEC industry and in most other industries. The observations highlight a gap between the current understanding, acceptance and practice of Lean.

From the artists’ observations the following conclusions were drawn:

  • The observations of Lean practitioners tend to be narrow, focused primarily on what we assess to be facts, discounting the ambiguous and anything difficult to understand.
  • Enterprise purpose is often defined in economic and production terms rather than encompassing goals supporting broader community and societal concerns.
  • The language used to discuss Lean leaves out the stories that inform the facts we seek for problem solving and improvement, and therefore is not relevant to the way most people live and work.
The workshop began to expand industry knowledge and understanding of Lean practices. This will continue. The next steps include identifying methods to improve observational skills, connecting work with emotionally rewarding purposes, and developing a Lean vocabulary relevant to more people.

If you are interested in more information about the workshop, Joanna McGuffey and I will be presenting a report on this work at the Lean Construction Congress in Anaheim on October 19, 2017 [1]. A detailed report will be published this fall. Details regarding the publication and other information are available on Lean Project Consulting website [2].


1. Lean Construction Institute Congress 2017. See: http://www.lcicongress.org/2017/

2. See: http://www.leanproject.com/experiments/lean-from-an-arts-perspective

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