Theory Versus Experience


"People are experience-rich and theory-poor. Lots and lots of experiences but don't have the time to try to make sense of them" I came across this quote attributed to a writer for The New Yorker by the name of Malcolm Gladwell, and it strikes me pretty insightful when it comes to lean. Of course the opposite is true when it comes to quite a few academics and some of my consulting brethren – they are theory rich and experience poor and often unable to tell us how to apply the theory to the realities from which the rest of the world derives their experiences.

The trick is to keep a foot firmly planted in both worlds – the theoretical one and the school of hard knocks.

The reason most either fail to grasp the importance of lean thinking, or pursue it as a tools package and miss out on all of the big gains is largely a failure to understand that it is an entirely different theory of economics, management and how people should work together to get things done.

In an interview with Jim Womack recently published in the Financial Post, Womack lists the “Top misconceptions of the Lean movement”; and they all boil down to a failure to grasp the underlying theory of lean: Missing the point that lean is a growth strategy, rather than a cost reduction scheme; Thinking it is a set of factory tools and techniques, rather than an entirely new idea centered around optimizing work flow – any work flow; Believing lean is a set of operating techniques to be deployed down deep in the weeds, rather than a profoundly different way of managing the enterprise; and Seeing lean as a local idea instead of one that applies to the entire chain of activities from the very beginning of the supply chain to the end.

Of course Womack is often accused of being a theoretical wizard but lacking in the rich experiences necessary to apply the theory to the harsh specifics of a company’s unique reality – a charge he doesn’t dispute. Most folks, however, are at the other extreme. They see lean as a cafeteria selection of techniques to be selected from as they see fit based on their experience working within a business theory at serious odds with lean theory.

5S and kaizen events are popular because they fit with common experiences – workplaces are disorganized and people don’t cooperate – so they make sense. Kanban is pursued as little more than a variation on old school min-max schemes because that fits with experience, while the theory of kanban as a powerful process cycle time reduction tool is most often missed entirely.

Lean accounting and value stream organizational structures were the creation of folks who live in that world of solid theoretical understanding along with a keen appreciation for the inconveniences of reality. The new theory of lean can’t be expressed in the old language of business – GAAP accounting. Cross functional cooperation among empowered employees to drive continuing improvement in customer value doesn’t jive with top down, command and control, functional organizations.

The genius of guys like Deming, Ohno and Shingo was their mastery of both theory and practical reality. They were steeped in the underlying philosophies of a completely different way of doing things on a grand scale, but also endowed with the ability to effortlessly see its practical application.

The challenge for the rest of us is to try to emulate that duality – that ability to fully grasp the theory and, as Gladwell challenged, to try to make sense of it within our own organizations.

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