SPIF Tip #23: Is There a Spiritual Dimension to Lean?


aspirationMy answer is, “And how!”

Lean isn’t always thought of as spiritual or aspirational, but it should be.  Here is a (shortened and paraphrased) comment on a recent post from Michael Ballé at Lean.org that got me going on this. The commenter said:

“Lean is strictly empirical, i.e. physical, limited to the realm of the physical world. All the learning it creates, all the striving for perfection and respect for people it allows and promotes, it all happens in the context of physical actions.”

I could not disagree more: Lean is not “limited” to the physical realm. The physical world simply is what it is. Physical things are desirable or undesirable only if someone appraises them, learns what changes will create improvement, and decides which changes to implement.

These are all actions of the mind. To ignore them is to drop the context entirely.

The commenter proceeds:

“… Spirit however, belongs to metaphysics (a word that literally means beyond physics), and I don’t think Lean has anything to say about it.”

Let’s define terms. First, attempting to mix reality with something “beyond” reality is not rational. Full stop.

Second, if by “spirit,” you mean human aspirations, this has to do with human consciousness. Consciousness is the faculty that identifies reality – physical reality being first and foremost. The assessment of whether those facts promote or harm one’s life immediately follows.

Consciousness is the means of survival for any creature that possesses it. The only choice human beings have is how effectively we decide to use our consciousness. And Lean has a great deal to say about that.

“… The same Lean that helps a hospital prevent medical errors could be used, without changing a comma, by a concentration camp to get 15% more people killed in the same shift, or by a terrorist group to get more people killed using less explosive, to put some extreme examples.”

Your typical Islamic terrorist values Allah, praying 5 times per day, and the murder of infidels. Neither they, nor the typical dictator values reality or knowledge or learning. They do not value voluntary cooperation. They use force to get what they want.

Evil people like these often want to take advantage of some of the benefits science and rationality can create. However, their contradictions undercut them in the end. North Korea, for example, is not known for producing productive inventors or geniuses of any kind. Neither was the Soviet Union, or any other collectivist society.

“… Lean per se has no moral principles to offer, except those that are linked to goal oriented efficiency … Lean says nothing about which value is “the good one”, which one is spiritually uplifting or abject.”

By definition, goals are a human aspiration. Lean enables people to distinguish whether their particular actions lead to producing value, or producing waste, i.e., whether their actions are good or bad.

To survive human beings need to produce. To thrive, they need to produce more. Further, it is right and moral for them to do so. No matter what one’s aspiration is, whether more shoes or shirts or less inventory or lead time, the lean philosophy helps people achieve these good things. And it enables them to do so in voluntary cooperation with each other.

I can’t think of much that supports the human spirit’s aspirations more than that.

Michael Webb


Michael Webb

Michael Webb founded Sales Performance Consultants to create a data-driven alternative to the slogans and shallow impact offered by typical sales training, sales consulting, and CRM companies. Michael helped organize and delivered the keynote speeches for the first conferences ever held on applying Six Sigma to marketing and sales. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

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