By Joachim Knuf
problem with ideas
Continuous improvement is a key practice in the lean system. Whatever we do currently,
and however we do it, a better way is just around the corner. Lurking. Teasing. Hiding. To chase it down, we need ideas, preferably
lots of them. Enough, at least, to corner the improvement and shed some light on it for study and experimentation. And then
we need a solid mechanism for translating those ideas quickly into action. As the saying goes, there is nothing as practical
as a good idea! PDCA, anyone?
For people to generate ideas, they have to be able to think
about what they do. Simple, right? As a lean practitioner yourself, how often then do you sit down, tilt your chair (safely),
free your mind of a million urgencies and try to let the creative juices flow? Or schedule team time to discuss a problem
or opportunity? (Toyota insists they are different animals, by the way.) You see what I mean. And if you are immersed in production,
with takt time as your living heartbeat, finding such moments is Mission Impossible.
I am sure you also have a good appreciation of some of the givens. Most importantly standardized work, which provides your
baseline of practice and observation. No baseline, no comparison, as Aristotle admonished us 2,300 years ago already. If you
can’t replicate tomorrow what you do today, or if five people do it five different ways, work on that first. New ideas
can wait until you can show that what you change produces an improvement and not simply another variant. Oh, and don’t
try to use what I just wrote as an excuse to continue unsafe practice; that sort of thing will have to stop at once.
Getting back to the ideas: There are lots of people working with you, which should mean that there are
also lots of ideas. So why aren’t the intellectual fireworks going off day and night? Why aren’t brilliant colleagues
engaging in spirited discourse with one another the moment they raise their heads from toil? There are many reasons for this,
of course, but the one I want to pick out here is rather paradoxical: knowledge.
captures the way in which we see the world. It provides meaning—and comfort—to what happens inside our heads and
around us. It helps us recognize things for what they are. Knowledge is familiarity and ease. It gives us control and reduces
uncertainty, surprise, and ultimately fear. Knowledge captures the status quo. In fact, it has a tendency to capture us in
the status quo.
So why is knowledge an obstacle to the constant generation of improvement
ideas? Clearly, it’s the sense-making that is at fault. What we know makes sense. What we don’t know makes no
or little sense. Why then would we venture beyond the realm of sense to seek out non-sense? With all the knowledge and experience
in our heads, how would we even recognize things that make no sense? And what good would it do us if we could?
All perfectly reasonable questions (which is why I put them here). But we have left out something important: For we are
not alone with our knowledge. Others have knowledge, too. In fact, what they know, they have typically acquired in their own,
read: different, ways. Sense-making is personal, after all. It uses my perspective. Things don’t simply make sense,
they make sense to me, given my background and experience. Or yours. And that is reason for hope.
To get ideas flowing, we need to connect. We have to show others how we see things, and they have to share their knowledge
in turn. If we apply this systematically as a learning tool, we are talking benchmarking, either within our work environment
or without. Perhaps most significantly, benchmarking promotes broad dialogue at all levels of the organization about its purpose,
values, beliefs, and practices. Benchmarking then provides us both a window and a mirror.
2009 Joachim Knuf