Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Lean Lessons:


In today’s post, I am writing about three great Lean lessons inspired by the late French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty was a phenomenologist who believed that our conceptual framework is inherently flawed. He wanted to develop a framework that accurately reflected the nature of things it described. His insight was that we perceive things by interacting with them. The more we interact, the deeper our perception becomes, and the more we can enjoy the richness of the object we are interacting with. Merleau-Ponty believed that being in the world is the embodied experience of perception. The world does not present itself “all at once” to the perceiver. The perceiver has to go through an ongoing process of exploration and discovery and a deeper understanding emerges gradually through this ongoing process.

The three lessons I have chosen are interrelated and are about perception. Lean teaches us the importance of Genchi Genbutsu or Go to See and Grasp the Situation. The following three ideas align really well with the idea of Genchi Genbutsu.

  • The philosopher is a perpetual beginner…

Merleau-Ponty’s point here is that a true philosopher does not take things for granted. I will replace the word “philosopher” with “Lean leader”. Thus, the Lean leader is a perpetual beginner. As Lean leaders, we are ready to learn everyday from the gemba. We are continually improving our perception from the gemba. We must resist the urge to feel that we have completed our learning and that there is nothing left to learn. To paraphrase Merleau-Ponty, we need to learn to see the world (and gemba) as something new every single day. We must start to “see” with a beginner’s mind to learn.


  • In order to see the world, we must break with our familiar acceptance of it:

Our ability to observe depends on our preconceived notions and biases. Understanding of a phenomenon lies under the surface in the nuances and the contradictions. Our familiarity based on our prior biases cloud our ability to “see”, and Merleau-Ponty advises us to break our familiar acceptance in order to see the world. We must put aside our assumptions and relearn to see the world with fresh eyes.


  • Nothing is more difficult than to know precisely what we see:

This idea to me is simply wonderful. When we are at the Gemba to see or observe, we jump to conclusions. We believe that we “see” the problem and know how to fix it. The act of observing and perceiving requires a vantage point. This vantage point comes with prejudices. We believe that what we see is quite simple and straightforward, and that we have a clear perspective. This actually hinders our ability to know and understand the phenomenon we are perceiving. From a philosophy standpoint, we believe that what we perceive is reality. This of course is incomplete and most of the time a faulty notion.

Final Words:

The three ideas of Merleau-Ponty advises us to go to the Gemba more and interact with it to improve our understanding. We should look at the real workplace with the eyes of a beginner, and keep interacting with an open mind without preconceived notions to learn. We should resist the urge to believe that we know precisely what we see.

Taiichi Ohno was famous for his Ohno circles. Taiichi Ohno drew chalk circles and made the supervisor or the engineer stand in the circle to observe an operation until he was able to “see” the waste that Ohno saw. Similar to Merleau-Ponty, Ohno also advises us to go and see without preconceived notions. Go and see a lot. This helps us to improve our perception. The more we do it, the better we get at it. And yet, we should strive to remain a perpetual beginner.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Toyota Physics:

2 thoughts on “Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Lean Lessons:

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