How often have you been involved in a project and realized that the key driver to keep everyone moving along was the schedule, not the quality of the outcome? Or other times when you intuitively knew that the tools or methods you were using were outdated and not appropriate for the task, that the team lacked creativity and insight, that you were simply re-applying old strategies to address intricate problems—yet, you did not dare to raise your concerns because of the fear of interrupting the momentum or being considered, with no doubt, a “disturber,” someone who does not play by the rules. (Well, perhaps you have raised your concerns a few times with no success, so you let it go.)
In contrast, how often have you been in a situation where participants decided to voluntarily stop the process—not to bring it to an end but to simply take the time to assess the situation and reflect; to evaluate how to take into consideration a new piece of information or an event that just occurred that is changing the current reality; to verify if the team was still focusing on the real vision, the true outcome; or to assess whether the process needed some changes? Rarely, I’m afraid. The reason we don’t like to stop is simple and deeply embedded in our Western business culture: whether or not the schedule is a hard constraint, we always feel the pressure to keep things moving along. Stopping a process creates instability and a sense of urgency—it generates a crisis. By interrupting the flow of our activities we send a message that something is not right; and this is often perceived as a step back because there is no guarantee that, as we lose our momentum, we will know how to move forward again—and this is scary and stressful.
Perhaps we should remember here one of the main principles of Lean Thinking: Stopping the process to build in quality (Jidoka). This concept was very foreign to U.S. automobile manufacturers in the 1970’s. In his book “The Toyota Way” Jeffrey Liker recalls how managers at General Motors “were judged by their ability to deliver the numbers. Get the job done no matter what—and that meant getting the engines to the assembly plant to keep it running.” (Sound familiar?) Stopping the assembly line was something inconceivable for American car manufacturers. Yet, a culture of stopping the process to fix problems and get quality right first time is essential to Lean Thinking.
While the challenges we face in our society today cannot be compared to the problems encountered on an assembly line, I do believe that Lean Thinking, as a holistic approach to management, is very relevant and applicable to how we manage our projects and initiatives and, learning when to stop to reflect and examine our thoughts, is primary.
In “Thought as a System” the physicist David Bohm states that, “until we can stop and look at thought, we can not halt the ongoing introduction of actions which failed to see the whole.” There is no point in running fast if we are running in the wrong direction; if the forces that drive us to run are misguided; or if we are focusing on the trees while forgetting the forest. By stopping the flow of our actions to examine our thoughts and looking deep into their rationale—that is, by defining the mental models that influence our thoughts and actions—one might be able to “see” and perceive our reality with new eyes. And I believe that when we do so, nothing will look the same ever again.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
~T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets – Little Gidding
Liker, Jeffrey K. (2004). The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer. McGraw-Hill.
Bohm, D. (1992,1994). Thought as a System. London: Routledge.