Planet Lean: The Official online magazine of the Lean Global Network
Why bother with lean when we're all doomed?

Why bother with lean when we're all doomed?

Michael Ballé
March 16, 2020

FEATURE – When faced with a crisis, like the current one, it is natural to wonder, “Why bother?”. Yet, this is when we most need a growth mindset and a framework like lean thinking to figure out a way forward.

Words: Michael Ballé, lean author, executive coach and co-founder of Institut Lean France.

What is the point of lean if all is going to hell in a handcart anyway? Actually, that is precisely the point of Lean Thinking! The world is not going to hell in a handcart, just that no one is at their best in a crowd panic.

A fairly robust theory for the past 20 years has been that in a challenging situation you can adopt one of two attitudes:

• A growth mindset – Learning is useful – what we learn will make things better; learning is possible; we can learn what we don’t currently know; setbacks are learning experiences and obstacles will be overcome.

• A fixed mindset – Learning is a waste of effort – even if it was useful there is no time or nothing to learn that would help right now; learning is impossible – even if there was, learning is too hard and asking too much; the only way to succeed is to play your cards right, always look smart, never look dumb.

A growth mindset leads consistently to better results. The basic premise of lean is that if you surround yourself with growth mindset people – think of Samuel Smiles' Self-help that so struck Sakichi Toyoda in the 1880s – then you create a culture of continuous improvement with the right visual tools to promote and support independent thinking.

This, of course, assuming that self-improvement is worth it. In any crisis, our brains are flooded with very strong emotions, such as fear, conviction, conformism, and despondency. These emotions feel – and are – real.

  • Fear makes you want to act right now, either in dismissing the problem or in attacking it full-on. Fear makes you feel like lashing out: running away and hide, or striking back and scaring it away by doing something so outrageous it will make the whole situation disappear.
  • Conviction, the strength of your belief in something, is a powerful emotion as well. Rationality is about considering options and weighing them up for their pros and cons. When only one path appears starkly and there is no doubt that this is the right way, rationality is long gone. The feeling that there is only one way to see this is an emotion in itself. It leads to anger and frustration because others don’t see that this is the only way.
  • Conformism is another powerful driver. Going against the group that surrounds you and risking it turning against you is a pain similar to physical pain in brain scanner. As sheep that jump in front of the car to join their mates across the road, we have a strong need to prove that we belong to our peer group, which expresses itself as escalation – we feel the need to show we’re doing more, not less. Much of the banality of evil stems from our innate need to prove authority figures or groups that we belong by demonstrating it concretely.
  • Despondency also looms large, when we lose all spirit from losing hope or courage, and we feel there is nothing to do other than let events pass us by and take us wherever they will. We’ve all experienced moments of dejection, when we despair of any possible outcome and feel profoundly disheartened, helpless and lose all self-confidence.

Having said that, even in a crisis, counterbalancing emotions are also in there, such as empathy, righteousness and curiosity. The smart part of our brain keeps ticking away even when it is flooded with fight-or-flee responses.

  • Empathy means feeling for – and with – someone close to you. I might agree with the need to quarantine to slow the spread of COVID19, but feel very angry at needless and unfair restrictions when a close friend gets stuck far away with no way to come home.
  • Righteousness is the best word I’ve found for the need to do the right thing and to do things right, not self-righteousness. We often have a dim hunch we’re acting stupidly or like jerks and when we calm down a little, we have a deep need to make things right, to find the right solution to a vexing problem.
  • Curiosity is always there as anything new or unexpected is captivating, no matter what else is going on. Anything unexpected that interrupts our thought process (which is often overwhelmed by our feelings and beliefs of panic in a crisis) will shift attention to this new fact. We can then choose to either pursue it or ignore it as irrelevant. Confusion rarely feels good, but it’s a premise for exploration – getting used to feeling confused is actually a good thinking practice.

This to say that in any panic, we’re pulled hither and tither by a bunch of confused, conflicting emotions and we never know exactly how we’re going to react. This is where Lean Thinking helps: think of it as a brain reboot machine.

Lean Thinking offers a deliberate framework to think things through: who are the customers? How does our base feel like? How is the logistics flow going to be interrupted? What concrete situations will people need help with? What team activities can we sponsor?

Who are the customers? In a confused, panic situation, who are the people we most need to care for? How do we keep them safe and continue to deliver quality and care? Simply asking this question tends to lift our eyes away from protecting the status quo at all costs (if there is a crisis, the status quo is already gone) and thinking about who we need to help first. Surely, with the COVID19 epidemic, we should worry more about people who fell ill – who are probably terrified and feeling guilty of having unwittingly become vectors. Not doing so will risk seeing them scapegoated and ostracized, which is not an outcome we’ll be proud of afterwards.

How do we keep mutual trust with our base? Our team, our company’s employee, the people we work with are likely to be as thrown as we are. What do we need to do to reassure them our reactions will be competent and inclusive? What are the critical systems we need to keep running so that they can do their part? What activities do we want to engage in that make sense to stave off the panic?

With the present dreadful pandemic, Adam Kurchaski’s rules of contagion are: Duration (how long a carrier continues to be contagious?) x Opportunities (how many people they meet out of their close circle?) x Transmissionprobability (how easy is it to catch?) x Susceptibility (how many people left to infect) – which means that spread can be dramatically reduced by 1) staying at home if one has a fever, 2) avoiding large gatherings, 3) coughing in one’s elbow, and 4) sanitizing and washing hands after touching surfaces in public areas. Obviously forcing people to stay at home all over will achieve that – but at what cost?

Where will logistics fall over? Lean Thinking then takes us to consider its two pillars. First, what are the risks to the interruption of supply chains and how are we going to manage this. What are the critical components that will first fail? How do we secure sources? What emergency stockpiles do we need to constitute without drowning in unnecessary inventories? What alternative supply routes can we imagine?

How do we set up the chain of help? What kind of concrete issues people are likely to encounter and how do we reinforce jidoka? What specific chain of help can we think of so that no one faces a problem alone? Is it a help chain? A hotline? Information on go/no go behaviors? How do we communicate smartly and continuously?

What team activities do we need to support? What kind of concrete activities should our teams focus on to channel their energies into positive next steps? We can organize support for affected team members, organize the supply of disinfectant material, setting up online systems for working from home, training to what is going on and so on. A sense of control and competence will definitely help people out of their funk and gain some autonomy – as well as genuinely help.

One thing I was taught many years ago as a green skipper: in a crisis, first don’t make things worse. Take a mental pause (yes, yes, it’s a storm and the rocks are close), list options, think of what your crew is like and what the logistics are like, come up with a plan, explain it in simple steps, stay flexible when things don’t turn out as you’d hoped. Easy on paper, hard in real life.

Practicing Lean Thinking every day means reinforcing our belief in better outcomes every day as well – as we achieve apparently impossible things we learn by doing that 1) we can make things better, for real and 2) the solutions that unlock the problem are never apparent first off (although they seem obvious in hindsight). It’s precisely when things feel hopeless that warm hearts and cool minds make a difference – and Lean Thinking is most relevant.

The one certainty we can get from reading about previous epidemics, whether of deadly viruses or viral financial meltdowns, is that the experts at the time are largely wrong (and the lone guy to have figured it out is derided and shunned – even if glorified long after) and that collective reactions turn out to be ineffective, destructive and completely mystifying when you read about it after the events. Granted this isn’t particularly helpful when you are deep in a crisis, but it’s a good reminder that the feelings of “this is all over,” “nothing can save us now,” “solutions are simple why don’t people apply them,” and “nothing I can do but wait it out,” are just that… feelings, but not thinking.

Applying the Lean Thinking framework, particularly when you don’t feel like it, won’t give any answers, but it will reboot the frontal cortex and show you that no defeat is final (just as no success is complete), and that the whole point of learning is the belief (yes, rational belief) that we will discover new ways to sort it out and carry on. Lean Thinking wasn’t invented for when all goes well. It’s most useful precisely when all seems shot. As soon as their brains recover from panic-driven emotions, people are smart and mean well and they will find a way – particularly with a smart method to think things through.

In a panic, fixed mindset sets in because we feel there is nothing we can learn quickly enough to save us. Fixed mindset opinion leaders rise to the top. And things go from bad to worse.

When we look back, crises are actually the moment when smart people figure things out and when you can learn precisely because you’re stimulated and focused – I haven’t learned as much about epidemiology since my family was hit by H1N1 in 2009 and during the equally contagious Lehman Brothers banking meltdown. In the end, growth mindset is what pulls us through, both in good times – with continuous improvement – and in bad, with not making matters worse and figuring a path forward. Lean Thinking is the framework to support and scaffold a growth mindset attitude. We need it now.


Michael Ballé photo
Michael Ballé is a lean author, executive coach and co-founder of Institut Lean France

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