What Kind of Lean Transformation Do You Want?

There’s more than one? A 2014 paper published in the Journal of Transpersonal Research authored by Steve Taylor introduces the idea of a ‘primary shift’ and a ‘secondary shift’ in a person’s personal growth. A secondary shift results in a transformation of a person’s values and perspective. A primary shift results in the transformation of a person’s identity, with consequent changes in values and perspective. Taylor argues that whereas a secondary shift is temporary, a primary shift is permanent.

Something similar is happening with lean transformations, both at the project level and at the enterprise level. As an industry we are fairly good at making secondary shifts. We implement the Last Planner® at some level, organize offices and job sites, and agree upon processes for collaborating to improve workflow. We generate results like those cited in the Lean Construction Institute’s 2016 Business Case – lean projects are three times as likely to complete ahead of schedule and two times as likely to complete under budget than non-lean projects.

And then it all goes away. The lean champion is transferred to another project; or new members to the team resist the lean way of working; or management introduces demands inconsistent with lean work and people give up in frustration. There are likely several dozen other events that conspire to degrade a lean implementation. Haruo Shimada and John Paul MacDuffie had good reason to propose in the summer of 1987 that the International Motor Vehicle Program team use the word ‘fragile’ instead of ‘lean’ to describe the approach to work they were observing at Toyota. Without continued attention to lean processes, they easily break apart.

What most projects and enterprises are experiencing when they implement lean practices is a secondary shift. They have transformed a team’s values and perspective, and this has resulted in the adoption of new behaviors focused on collaboration and process improvement. Yet for the people on the team and in the enterprise the old personal identities remain. And for many, if not most, people those identities are at odds with the lean approach. Even those who continue to embrace lean management misunderstand what allows it to be a success at Toyota.

The pre-Toyota Production System history is vitally important. The Toyota family, beginning with Sakichi, had a strong sense of an identity and purpose as contributors to the welfare of the Japanese people through invention, industry, and character. This identity, now directed at all of humanity and not just Japan, is expressed by a set of statements known as the Five Precepts, documented by Sakichi’s son and son-in-law in 1935, five years after his death.

  • Be contributive to the development and welfare of the country by working together, regardless of position, in faithfully fulfilling your duties.
  • Always be studious and creative, striving to stay ahead of the times.
  • Always be practical and avoid frivolousness.
  • Always strive to build a homelike atmosphere at work that is warm and friendly.
  • Always have respect for God and remember to be grateful at all times.

There is evidence suggesting that Sakichi may have experienced something akin to Taylor’s primary shift while still a young man. Sakichi was reportedly heavily influenced by Samuel Smiles’ book, Self Help. His reading of the book coincides with his determination to go against his father’s wishes to continue the family’s farming and carpentry interests – no small matter in post-feudal, 19th century, rural Japan. His willingness to align his identity and work with a common good stems from this determination.

Psychological research supports the importance of understanding what is alternatively described as one’s core identity or authentic self, and the importance of aligning that identity with what one does. A challenge is that for many that core identity is hidden behind a mask of fake identities, labels, and other coping mechanisms developed to deal with insults, expectations, and directives intentionally and unintentionally imposed on us, beginning in childhood and continuing to this day.

The good news is that it is possible to strip away that mask of coping mechanisms and rediscover core identity. The continued good news is that a person’s core identity supports values and a service perspective that facilitates collaboration on objectives benefiting a broader community. This discovery begins the process of a primary shift. The reason this is important for a lean transformation is that a primary shift in our understanding of the work leads to a permanent commitment to using lean principles in our work.

Undertaking a primary shift is no small task. It requires tackling the so-called ‘soft’ skills that as Tom Peters points out in The Excellence Dividend is the hardest work of any organization. In his words, “the misnamed ‘soft stuff’ comes first.” While necessary if we are some point to realize our potential, removing our masks can be painfully uncomfortable work.

So in your lean transformation, will you settle for a secondary shift, or seek a primary shift?

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