Is Lean the Medium or the Message?


In today’s post, I am looking at the profound phrase of Marshall McLuhan, “The medium is the message.” Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher and a media theorist. McLuhan noted that: [1]

Each medium, independent of the content it mediates, has its own intrinsic effects which are its unique message… The message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs… It is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.

The simplest understanding of the phrase, “the medium is the message”, is that it does not matter what we say, it matters how we say it. However, this is a simplistic view. McLuhan’s insight was that any medium is an extension of ourselves. For example, the telephone is an environment, and it affects everybody. The smartphone, which is a further advancement of the telephone, has a much larger impact on us and what we do. McLuhan realized that as we shape the media, the media shapes us. It is a complex interactive phenomenon. McLuhan said that it does not matter what you print, as long as you keep going with that activity. Every medium helps us to do much more that what we can do physically. For example, McLuhan talked about language being an extension of our thoughts, and written language is a further extension of our speech. The ability to print replaced the need for us to be there physically to extend our thoughts via speech. The ability to print had a profound impact on us much more than all the printed media combined. The medium is the message simply because the impact the media has on our social life.

McLuhan realized that media has an impact on our environment, and sadly we are most of the time unaware of our changing environment. He noted that people in any environment are less privileged to observing themselves than those slightly outside. McLuhan explained this phenomenon with a catchy phrase – the fish did not discover water. He postulated that fish may not be aware of the water, the very thing their life depend on. Another way to look at this is by looking at tweets from a politician. The tweets themselves are beside the point. The medium of Twitter has a far reaching impact on our social media. McLuhan would ask us to look beyond the obvious content in a tweet and look at the social impact the medium is generating.

I wanted to view this idea with Lean. As Lean Leaders, we are trying to propagate the good messages of Lean – “Banish waste”, “respect for Humanity”, “kaizen” etc. We need to realize that the message is not the content, but the medium and the context of our actions. As the aphorism goes, our actions speak louder than our words. The medium, as extensions of us, reaches into our lives and shape ourselves. We should concentrate on the medium to make a larger favorable impact. A good example is kanban. Kanban is a simple mechanism for a pull system, a paper slip that triggers production in a quantity that is needed at the time it is needed. However, the use of kanban leads to an awareness of the problems at the gemba, which leads to a need for a kaizen culture.

The ideas of revealing waste as it occurs, challenging ourselves to continuously improve by elimination of waste and develop people as part of a value adding function are integral to any Lean implementation. This complex intermingled set of ideas cannot be made understood by an edict top down from the CEO – “implement Lean.” What is needed is an understanding of the medium and the environment. The medium of daily board meetings for example has an impact on the social aspects in an organization because of involvements at different levels. The medium of QC circles or daily or weekly kaizen groups are another example. The content of fixing problems is not as important as the medium itself and the long-lasting impact it has by developing people to see wastes and improving their own ability to fix problems.

Sometimes we focus more on the content of the message, as in implementing “Lean”, without trying to understand what is the need that we are trying to address. McLuhan explained this focus on the content as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. We are focusing on the wrong thing. The top down push for lean, six sigma etc. without changing medium may not have a lasting effect. The medium itself has to be changed to change the meaning and impact. The medium is the message, which is context driven! If you want to make “change”, don’t just change the message, change the medium itself. Hence, the title of this post – Is Lean the Medium or the Message?

Final Words:

It is said that the typesetters mistakenly printed, “The medium is the massage” on the cover of his book [2]. McLuhan loved the changed phrasing because it had additional interpretations that he appreciated. He said, “Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!” [3]

I will finish with a great insight that McLuhan made in 1964 [1], that foreshadowed the medium of internet and social media:

Archimedes once said, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.” Today he would have pointed to our electric media and said, “I will stand on your eyes, your ears, your nerves, and your brain, and the world will move in any tempo or pattern I choose.” We have leased these “places to stand” to private corporations.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Purpose of a System in Light of VSM:

[1] Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan

[2] The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan