Conceptual Metaphors in Lean:

Vitruvian Man blueprint.

In today’s post, I am looking at conceptual metaphors in Lean. A Conceptual metaphor is a concept in conceptual linguistics, first introduced by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By. They noted that:

Human beings structure their understanding of their experiences in the world via “conceptual metaphors” derived from basic sensorimotor and spatial concepts (spatial primitives and image schemata) learned during infancy and early childhood. 

Metaphors are normally thought of as a way to explain something further. Aristotle noted that metaphors made learning pleasant. “To learn easily is naturally pleasant to all people, and words signify something, so whatever words create knowledge in us are most pleasant.” However, the conceptual metaphor theory goes beyond the metaphor being just a linguistic/artistic phenomenon. The conceptual metaphor theory notes that metaphors are primarily used to understand abstract concepts, and that these are used subconsciously on an everyday basis. The conceptual metaphors are treated as an inevitable part of our thinking and reasoning. Lakoff and Johnson note that:

The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another… Metaphors are fundamentally conceptual in nature; metaphorical language is secondary. Conceptual metaphors are grounded in everyday experience. Abstract thought is largely, though not entirely, metaphorical. Metaphorical thought is unavoidable, ubiquitous, and mostly unconscious. Abstract concepts have a literal core but are extended by metaphors, often by many mutually inconsistent metaphors. Abstract concepts are not complete without metaphors. For example, love is not love without metaphors of magic, attraction, madness, union, nurturance, and so on.

One form of conceptual metaphor is an “Ontological Metaphor” – a metaphor in which an abstraction, such as an activity, emotion, or idea, is represented as something concrete, such as an object, substance, container, or person. A good example of an ontological metaphor in lean is waste. We are taught that we should seek total elimination of waste in lean. We are giving a physical representation to the abstract concept of “waste”. Waste is an adversary that can hurt us, steal from us, and destroy us. To paraphrase Lakoff: (I have inserted Waste in his example)

The ontological metaphor of waste allows us to make sense of phenomena in the world in human terms—terms that we can understand on the basis of our own motivations, goals, actions, and characteristics. Viewing something as abstract as waste in human terms has an explanatory power of the only sort that makes sense to most people. When we are suffering substantial economic losses, WASTE IS AN ADVERSARY metaphor at least gives us a coherent account of why we’re suffering these losses.

It is also interesting to see how the concept of waste got translated as it was transplanted from Toyota to the West. Taiichi Ohno, the father of TPS, saw waste in terms of man-hours and labor density. Outside Toyota, elimination of waste was seen as a means to increase capacity, a pursuit of efficiency alone.

Labor density is the ratio of work and motion.

Work/Motion = Labor Density

In the equation, work indicates the action carried out to forward a process or enhance the added value. Ohno realized that the correct way to improve labor density is to keep the numerator (work) the same, while decreasing the non-value added portion of motion. The denominator is an impersonal motion and the numerator is work with a human touch. The act of intensifying labor density or of raising the labor utility factor means to make the denominator smaller (by eliminating waste) without making the numerator larger.

Kiichiro Toyoda, Toyota’s president in 1949, issued the challenge to catch up with the United States within three years. America’s productivity was thought to be eight or nine times better than Japan’s. Ohno realized that this was not because the Americans were physically exerting ten times more than the Japanese. “It was probably that the Japanese are wasteful in their production system”, Ohno thought. Ohno’s view was that the total elimination of waste should result in man-hour reduction. Toyota’s man-hour reduction movement is aimed at reducing the overall number of man-hours by eliminating wasted motions and transforming them into work. Toyota succeeded because they realized that elimination of waste was an expression of their respect for humanity. The respect of humanity portion may have gotten lost in translation when the ontological metaphor of “waste” was spread outside Toyota.

Employees give their valuable energy and time to the company. If they are not given the opportunity to serve the company by working effectively, there can be no joy. For the company to deny that opportunity is against the principle of respect for humanity. People’s sense of value cannot be satisfied unless they know they are doing something worthwhile.

Ohno’s first go-to training tool was to ask the supervisor to try doing the same work with less operators. The elimination of waste becomes easier when the operators have a visual control system for seeing waste as either time on hand or stock on hand, and when they avoid overproduction via Kanban. Ohno’s view of elimination of waste was to be effective and efficient by producing only what is needed. The idea of elimination of waste in the West may have become pursuing just efficiency and dropping effectiveness. The waste elimination can be viewed as a means to increase capacity, and this leads to the question – why should we stop at the daily required quantity of 100 units now that the improvement activities have yielded us more capacity to produce up to 125 units a day? Lean has become “doing more with less”, while Ohno’s goal was “doing just what is needed with less.” Ohno’s goal was being efficient and effective, even if it meant machines remained idle.

Final Words:

The term “Lean” itself is a conceptual metaphor. “Lean” refers to being fit, as opposed to being obese. In “Lean”, elimination of waste is about “trimming the fat”. The metaphor of “lean” represents the aesthetics of being beautiful and healthy – perhaps a notion of being in charge and knowing what needs to be done. This could be viewed as the Western philosophy of outwardly focus on external beauty, whereas the Eastern philosophy is more inwardly focused. In Japanese culture, the concept of harmony is imperative. This is part of the ‘respect for humanity’ side of the Toyota Production System.

I welcome the reader to explore the concept of conceptual metaphor. You may also like one of my older posts – Would Ohno Change the Term “Lean”?

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Chekhov’s Gun at the Gemba:

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