I am a fan of Robert Barron, a Catholic priest who is a teacher and a master communicator as much as anything else. In reading his book, The Strangest Way I came across a passage that struck me as perhaps the best wordsmithed explanation of Lean I have ever read. Barron, of course, could care less about Lean; so to get there I had to take the liberty of taking his words and substituting ‘Lean’ for Christianity’, and ‘Toyota’ for ‘Jesus Christ’. The result, however, is spot on.
With gratitude and all due respect to Father Barron, here it is:
‘One of the earliest terms used to describe Lean is the simple term “way”. This signals something of great importance. Lean, before all else, is a form of life, a path that one walks. It is a way of seeing, a frame of mind, an attitude, but more than this it is a manner of moving and acting, standing and relating. It is not simply a matter of the mind, but the body as well. In fact, one could say that Lean is not real until it has insinuated itself into the blood and the bones, until it becomes an instinct, as much physical as spiritual. Perhaps the most direct description is this: Lean, the way of Toyota, is a culture, a style of life supported by a unique set of convictions, assumptions, hopes and practices. It is like a game with a distinctive texture, feel and set of rules. As such it is a milieu into which one must be introduced through a process of practice and apprenticeship.’
We discuss lean in terms of tools, culture and management, when in fact it is awfully hard to treat these as separate and distinct elements. It is, as Barron says, “as much physical as spiritual” – a way of acting as well as a way of thinking, and both have to be present. The tools are powerful in the hands of someone steeped in the wisdom and principles that enable one to know when and how to use those tools. The wisdom and culture of lean is not worth much without the tools necessary to act on that wisdom and culture. It is hard – impossible – to really discuss the physical elements of lean without discussing the metaphysical.