I have long preached that embracing lean should not require a leap of faith – that is is the product of cold, hard logic and that it makes business sense on its own merits. But I may have been wrong. When I think back on my own lean journey and its origins over 20 years ago, I realize that it began with faith – not a leap – but faith nevertheless.
I am apt to have some difficult explaining to do when I arrive at the Pearly Gates and St Peter asks about my habit of reading scripture, then letting my mind wander back to lean, and applying biblical passages to Evolving Excellence, but sometimes the parallels are just too good to ignore. While it is not from the bible, per se, I came across the following quote from St Augustine:
"Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore, don't seek to understand so that you may believe, but believe so that you may understand."
He is talking about our attitude going into a big, complicated idea. Both spiritual faith and the lean sea change from everything we were taught about manufacturing and business fit that description. There are counter-intuitive elements and a vast complexity that can make them more than a bit challenging to simply accept and make a part of our DNA.
He is saying that you can either be a skeptic, and assume the theory is not true until proven to you; or you can have faith it is true and go seek the proof that supports your faith. For reasons that I cannot explain, I had faith in the validity of lean from the get-go. That is not my standard modus operandi in life as those of you have sensed a trace of cynical skepticism in my writing may have concluded. But Toyota and their success could not be ignored, and at each set back in my lean journey, I made the assumption that the failure was due to my lack of understanding, rather than proof of the fallacy of lean. I took lean on faith, and figured I had more learning to do.
I still don't have it all figured out, but the fact that eventually, with a little more work and a little more digging, I have been able to fill each gap in my understanding of lean as it came along keeps my faith in lean strong.
You need to do the same. As long as Toyota is the 800 pound gorilla in our living we can't avoid, we all must assume that lean is valid. And we have to assume that any problems we have in implementation are the result of our ignorance. If we do the opposite – assume lean is a fad, a myth, or illogical until proven otherwise, we fly in the face of increasingly overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and worse, we are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Taking on faith that there is a better way to do things than the way we are currently doing them, and having the humility to assume that problems on the path to that better way are solely the result of our own ignorance, are not easy on the ego. It does open us up to the possibility of learning, however. On the other hand, assuming that we are on the proper path until proven otherwise seems to be the path the precludes learning.
I think old Saint Augie was onto something. I think 'believing so we can understand' is a pretty sound wisdom for the lean journey.