Customer value through continuous improvement, with respect for people

May 22, 02016 · Systems Concepts ·

Here's the underlying concept:

Creating customer value
through continuous improvement,
with respect for people.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? It is simple.1 But simple isn't easy.

The L-word: a loathsome sidebar

This concept is similar to what some folks talk about when they use the word "lean". For example, LEI's pithy (440 word) definition begins: "The core idea is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources." Their page eventually does talk about a narrow sense of respect for people (down at the bottom, after the sales pitches).2

I try to avoid the "lean" word, since (a) it's a vapid marketing term, (b) it's misleading, and (c) it has earned a bunch of skepticism over the last decade or two. Conversations about lean begin with a ritual throat-clearing (What do you mean? No, what do you mean? Is it, or is it not, about reducing headcount? Have you ever touched a ledger once blessed by Dr. Deming?) and end in a tedious fusillade of obscurantist Japanese terminology (kaizen, poka-yoka, kanban, yokoten, …).

My sweetie Liana once asked: is lean a system, a tool, or a cult? You know, I don't have a horse in this race. Call it lean, call it something else. What I really want is for you to not call it anything at all: for the underlying concept—or something similar to it—to become part of what it means to participate in the organizations or networks that make up your life.

What is a concept good for?

Well, for starters, you can make it into a nice poster or something, and hang it in the room where people make and eat their food.

Creating customer value!!
thru continuous improvement,
with respect for people. 🎉

After that, you can talk about the concept. Make sure people have heard it, or even better, understand it. Spend some time noodling over the questions contained within (Who are our customers? How do we know/decide what they value? Continuous improvement WTF? What does "respect for people" even mean?).

Then, start using the concept.

The underlying concept really is foundational. It doesn't change much, if at all. It's the received wisdom extracted from the Just So Stories of lean.

This concept supports a way of thinking that involves everybody in an organization. These are the changes in belonging, perspective, and meaning that come from internalizing the concept—from either deciding that it's true, or being willing to act as if you did. The way a group thinks changes over time. It changes based on who's there. It changes in reaction to events. It's the Ship of Theseus or the old grandfather's axe.

And thinking this way means you need a collection of tools to close the gaps and make the changes you're looking for. This is the part of an organizational transformation that people copy, because it is the part that's easy to see.3 But tools are valuable only to the extent they're given space and structure via the way of thinking, and supported by the underlying concept.4

Here's how it feels:

Rates of change: Underlying concepts are foundational; ways of thinking can be extended or adjusted over time, with care; the collection of tools used is easy to change, adapt, or discard based on the current situation

Rearrange the house for every party you throw. Try things out. Continuously improve your process for continuous improvement. Improvisation and adaptation is the name of the game. When you try a tool for the first time, certainly follow the instruction of your book or facilitator. Maybe they know something. But the next time? You know what to do.

The way of thinking is both more fragile and more resistant to change. A manager who meddles with a countermeasure5 devised and planned out by staff is operating on the level of somebody figuring out exactly how much of a joist they can cut out.

And the underlying concept—if that's not what you're into, that's fine. (It's an entirely other house, at that point. Go build your own damn metaphor.)6 If it is something you buy into—this notion that we can create customer value through continuous improvement, with respect for people—use the concept every day, but don't worry about it every day.


  1. I hereby present your lean certification [💯] and your black belt . You have no idea how much scratch you just saved.

  2. An easy jab but I stand by it. Last year I heard Jim Womack emit an hour-length keynote on lean without saying one word about respect for people.

  3. "Without theory we can only copy."
    —Dr. Deming, The New Economics (01993)

  4. Perhaps uncomfortably, I note that doing things—demonstrating, teaching, and using tools from the collection of tools—is what consultants (like me) can most easily get hired and paid to do. It's also the least valuable thing. It's why people sometimes feel like continuous improvement is "done to them". Tools can be sold, ways of thinking can be taught, and the underlying concept can only be absorbed, fitfully and through experience. (Another particularly ineffective model of "lean transformation" involves a gluttonous combination of training and yelling at leadership—and that stinks too.)

  5. Countermeasure = a proposed, untested, but worthy-of-trying-out solution countermeasure to a problem. I am a seeker for a new word.

  6. Think in terms of shearing layers.

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