Flat Earth Lean:


How many interpreters does it take to change a light bulb?

It depends on the context!

In today’s post, I will be looking at what I call “Flat Earth Lean” and “Contextual Lean”. I recently came across the concept of “Flat Earth View” in organizational communication. Matthew Koschmann, currently an associate professor at the University of Colorado, talks about the one-dimensional approach to organization communication where the big picture is not used. It is a linear approach without looking at the contexts or the social aspects. Koschmann explains – What I mean by a flat earth approach is a perspective that seems correct from a limited vantage point because it works for much of our day to day lives, but ultimately it fails to account for the complexity of a situation. For much of human history we got by just fine thinking the earth was flat, even though it was always round. And even with our 21st century sophistication where we know the earth is round, most of us can actually get by with flat earth assumptions much of the time. But what about when things get more complex? If you want to put a satellite into space or take a transcontinental flight, flat earth assumptions are not going to be very helpful. Remember in elementary school when you compared a globe to a map and realized, for example, that it s quicker to fly from New York to Moscow by flying over the North Pole instead of across the Atlantic? What seems counter intuitive from a flat earth perspective actually makes perfect sense from a round earth perspective.”

I would like to draw an analogy to Lean. Perhaps, the concept of flat earth exists in Lean as well. This could be looked at as the tools approach or copying Toyota’s solutions to apply them blindly. The linear approach implies a direct cause and effect relationship. From the Complexity Science standpoint, the linear relationship makes sense only in the simple and complicated domains. This is the view that everything is mechanistic, utilizing the metaphor of a machine – press this button here to make something happen on the other side with no unintended consequence or adverse effects. In this world, things are thought to be predictable, they can be standardized with one-glove-fits-all solutions, and every part is easily replaceable. Such a view is very simplistic and normally cares only about efficiency. This is an approach that is used for technical systems. There is limited or no focus on context. Hajime Ohba, a Toyota veteran, used to say that simply copying Toyota’s methods is like creating the image of Buddha and forgetting to inject soul in it. In Flat Earth Lean, the assumption is that end goal is clearly visible and that it is as easy as going from HERE to THERE. The insistence is always to KISS (keep it simple stupid). In many regards, this reductionist approach was working in the past. Information generation was minimal and the created information was kept local in the hands of the experts. In today’s global economy, organizations do not have the leisure to keep using the reductionist approach. Today, organizations not only have to ensure that information is diffused properly, they also have to rely on their employees to generate new information on a frequent basis. The focus needs to be shifted to organizations being socio-technical systems where things are not entirely predictable.

Here to There

Karl Weick, an American organizational theorist, advises to “complicate yourself”. He cautions us to not rely on oversimplification. We need to understand the context of what we are doing, and then challenge our assumptions. We have to look for contradictions and paradoxes. They are the golden nuggets that help us to understand our systems. In Contextual Lean, we have to understand our problems first and then look for ways to make things better. Implementing 5S with the aim of being “Lean” is the Flat Earth Approach. Implementing 5S and other visualization methods to make sense of our world, and making problems visible so that we can address them is “Contextual Lean”. If there is such a thing as “going Lean” for an organization, it is surely a collective expression. “Lean” does not exist in isolation in a department or in a cabinet; let alone in one Manager or an employee. To paraphrase the great philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the meaning of an expression exists only in context. Context gives meaning. Toyota’s “Lean” has limited meaning in relation to your organization since it makes sense only in the context of the problems that Toyota has. Thus, when the Top Management pushes for Lean initiation, it has to be in the context of the problems that the organization has. Understanding context requires self-reflection and continuous learning for the organization. This again is a collective expression and does not exist without involving the employees. Interestingly, Contextual Lean has to utilize Flat Earth approach as needed.

Flat Earth and Contextual Lean have some similarities to the late American business theorist Chris Argyris’ ideas of Single and Double Loop learning. Single Loop learning is the concept of correcting an error by using the existing mental models, norms and practices. Argyris gives the example of a thermostat to explain this – Single loop learning can be compared with a thermostat that learns when it is too hot or too cold and then turns the heat on or off. The thermostat is able to perform this task because it can receive information (the temperature of the room) and therefore take corrective action. Double Loop Learning, on the other hand, involves a reflective phase that challenges the existing mental models, norms and practices, and modifies them to correct the error. In Chris Argyris’ words –If the thermostat could question itself about whether it should be set at 68 degrees, it would be capable not only of detecting error but of questioning the underlying policies and goals as well as its own program. That is a second and more comprehensive inquiry; hence it might be called double loop learning. Single Loop Learning has some similarities to Flat Earth Lean in that it wants to take a simplistic approach and does not want to modify the mental models. It wants to keep doing what is told and to use an old analogy – only bring your hands to work and leave your brains outside. Single Loop Learning is a superficial approach to solve problems symptomatically. Double Loop Learning has some similarities to Contextual Lean in that it is not one-dimensional and results in modifying the mental models as needed. It is a continuous learning and adapting cycle. Argyris also believed that organizations learn when its people learn – Organizational learning occurs when individuals, acting from their times and maps, detect a match or mismatch of outcome to expectation which confirms or disconfirms organizational theory-in-use.

I will finish with a fitting contextual story about change.

Mulla Nasrudhin was now an old man. People used to gather around to hear him talk. One day a young man asked for some words of wisdom.

Mulla replied, “When I was young I was very strong minded- I wanted to awaken everyone. I prayed to God to give me the strength to change the world. As time went on, I became middle aged and I realized that I did not change the world. Then I prayed to God to give me strength so that I can at least change those close around me. Now that I am older and perhaps wiser, my prayer has become simpler. I say – God, please grant me the strength to change at least myself.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Purpose of Visualization:

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