I spend a lot of time talking with people unfamiliar with Lean and, while I’m absolutely mad about the topic, these sessions can sometimes be very frustrating. Despite my best efforts, some people look just plain confused and others react with strong denial when I describe how Lean works and what it can deliver.

The Chinese have a great saying about the difficulty of explaining to someone something that is beyond their experience. It is,

“How do you describe the sky to a frog in a well?”

Sometimes people’s scope of responsibility and experiences are so limited that seeing beyond them and accepting radically new ways of doing things is very difficult.

The Executive Frog

When I share examples of Lean results with executives, one common reaction is something along the lines of ”Well, THAT organization was really screwed up; it’s no wonder they could improve so much. WE’RE not like that.”

For most executives, the view from the well is just the company’s financial statements. And if those are looking good, then everything must be running fine. Oh, you wish!

When I was a department manager in a silicon wafer fab, we reduced cycle time by 95% using Lean Six Sigma thinking and tools. Now, when I started that job, I knew there was waste and believed that we could easily cut cycle time in half. But, if you told me we could reduce it 95%, even I would’ve rolled my eyes. “Oh, come on. We’re not THAT screwed up,” Oh, yes, we were!

In this instance, I was a ‘frog in the well.’ I had no idea was was really happening at the Gemba aka the factory floor. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Everyone Underestimates the Sky

Before I run a rapid improvement event at a client, we review the current process’ performance and I ask event participants to estimate how much improvement they think is possible. 10%? 20%? 30%?

Then, we run the event, improve the process and compare the actual results to their estimates. I’ve been doing this for more than a decade and people grossly underestimate the improvement possibilities every single time, typically by 100%, e.g., they estimate 20% and the actual improvement is 40%. Once people experience this ‘sky’, they see countless improvement possibilities all around them.

Experience the ‘Lean’ Sky

There’s a popular Lean aphorism: ‘Act your way to new thinking.’ 

People commonly try to approach change from the other direction. They want to THINK their way to new actions. But, their thoughts are limited by the view from their well. New actions can appear illogical or risky and are to be avoided.

That’s why Lean emphasizes activities like Gemba walks. Get out where the work is actually being done. Watch. Listen. Don’t judge. Don’t intellectualize. Understand. Empathize.

What will you do today to get outside your well?

Let’s Ride!

Todd Hudson, Head Maverick