A Conventional Manager Learns from Lean: Beginner’s Mind

Author’s note: This blog is one of a series about learnings from the Lean movement. I’ve been getting some feedback on the series from colleagues. They’ve been saying that these observations are very personal, and pointing out that not all observers would see the Lean movement in the same way.

Indeed, I’ve been consciously focusing more on the inspiration I take from the early days of Lean, centred around Toyota, and less on some of the more mechanical, in my view more manipulative and less humane, applications I see happening more recently.  

So, I’ve decided to rename the series, to make it more clear that these are a personal view, one that is part of my own journey away from “conventional” management and leadership ideas and toward what I see as far more inspiring, post-conventional ones. I would include the best of the Lean and Agile movements in the inspiring, post-conventional space.  

To put myself in context, I spent almost 20 years as a banker (albeit with a few inspired mentors), and then another seven as a conventional management consultant, before I began to encounter people who focused me intentionally on new models of leadership. You can read more about my story here.  https://www.linkedin.com/in/scott-downs-76826a/. I hope you continue to enjoy the series, and that you continue to send feedback!

The leaders from the early days of the Lean revolution faced challenges of competitiveness: as smaller, weaker Japanese auto manufacturers, they were attempting to challenge huge, established companies in the West. To their immense credit, these leaders realised that they did not have a ready answer to this problem - but they resolved to discover the answers to their dilemma through intense study of their situation and adopting a mindset of continuous learning. In the East, this ethos is often called Beginner’s Mind.

This approach was so very different from the traditional approach of expert management, where leaders are expected to know the answers - at both an engineering and a strategic level - and simply to get the organisation to execute on their strategies and plans. In that mindset, leadership is the source of answers - leaders are Knowers.  

Instead the Lean leaders resolved to to adopt Beginner’s Mind, to be Learners. Their attitude was captured beautifully in a few words by Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho:

       Go see, ask why, show respect.  

Looking for ways to make themselves competitive, and indeed eventually to take and extend a competitive lead, the Lean leaders went constantly to their own factory floors - and out to their customers - to see what was happening, to ask why, to be humble before their worker colleagues, their colleagues, and their customers, showing respect to the people they were listening to.

Together the process of asking "Why?" over and over again - five times in the classic formulation -  allowed the Lean leaders to evolve totally new means of production, reducing waste dramatically, improving quality dramatically, becoming far faster in bringing new product to market, in being far more responsive to customer needs and especially to customer feedback.

A relentless barrage of "why’s" is the best way to prepare your mind to pierce the  clouded veil of thinking caused by the status quo. Use it often.

         -Shigeo Shingo

The intent to be open to learning is built into the Lean principles of Inspect and Adapt:  see what work has been done, what product or service has been made, assess its quality and its fitness for purpose, consider opportunities for improvement, and make changes to capture the most promising new ideas.

Likewise this learning ethos is captured in famous PDCA cycle in Lean practice:

  • Plan
  • Do
  • Check
  • Adapt

All of these practices arose in significant part from Beginner’s Mind, from taking the attitude of being a Learner, not a Knower.

Fred Kofman, in his wonderful book and other online media about Conscious Business, has captured this mindset beautifully in these two simple words. Although not directly associated with the origins of Lean, we’ll use this language here because it captures the basic concept so clearly.  

Fred writes:

You and I see the world differently. The way in which you deal with such differences defines you as a “knower” or a “learner.”

Knowers, also known as "Know-it-alls," claim to always know how things are, how they ought to be, and what needs to be done. They give a lot of orders and ask very few questions.

Knowers are not those who know many things because they've studied and practiced, becoming experts in a certain field. Knowers are those who, regardless of their real knowledge, want to impose their views on everybody else.

Learners are curious and humble, less certain about how to interpret what is going on and what to do about it. They are more inquisitive than directive. They tend to consider others’ perspectives instead of imposing their own.

Learners are not those who lack knowledge or expertise in a certain field. Learners are those who, regardless of their real knowledge (which can be massive), keep an open, curious mind, and don't want to shut down alternative points of view without respectful consideration.

Knowers stake their self-esteem on being right—or at least convincing everybody that they are. They impose their opinions on others and claim that these opinions are “the truth.” They try to eliminate all opposing views until everybody agrees with them. They believe that they see things as they are, and that whoever does not see things in the same way is wrong.

Learners stake their self-esteem on staying open—and inviting everybody to share their views. They seek to understand and be understood. They feel at ease presenting their opinions to others as reasonable assessments and inviting others to present their different opinions in a spirit of mutual learning. They believe that they see things as they appear to them, and that their view is only part of a larger picture.¹

In later years, this Lean principle has inspired many people in technology industries and in the startup ecosystem generally. It is powerfully captured in the approaches advocated in Eric Ries’s classic book, the Lean Startup.  The most effective Lean organisations are inherently Learners. They understand that they do not have all the answers in their own heads, but rather need to interact with their colleagues, and especially with customers, to learn what truly works and serves in the market.  The core Lean Startup idea of a Minimum Viable Product - a simple offering that can be quickly and realistically tested in the marketplace, and the widespread digital practice of A/B testing, are inherently examples of  “Learner” Ideas.

As Lean-Agile leaders, constantly keeping ourselves humble and open, constantly learning, and resisting the idea that we as leaders are the experts, the Knowers, is a crucial mindset.

At Temenos+Agility, we invite you to come explore with us how you can take your Lean-Agile leadership to the next level. The way we teach all our courses in scaled Agile leadership conveys important Lean-Agile skills and processes - and invites you to lead as a Learner.  Come study with us to acquire certification as a SAFe Agilist, SAFe Program Consultant, or a certified SAFe Scrum Master or Product Owner.  

Or, to dive even deeper into your leadership journey, join us for one of our Gatherings, where we share and explore the Temenos Effect, calling forward trusting, co-creative teams and discovering compelling personal and shared visions of the future. Details for all our events can be found here: https://www.visiontemenos.com/events.  We look forward to seeing you there.

¹ Fred Kofman, Are You A Knower Or A Learner?

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/you-knower-learner-43-fred-kofman

Published August 14, 2015 

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