Frank's blog

Lean – an objective or intersubjective reality?

A friend of mine asked recently: “What do you want me to present at a Lean conference?” I suggested to discuss “What is Lean?”. This is because I have an ongoing dilemma with continuous improvement (CI) frameworks such as Lean, Operational Excellence, TPS etc.

The CI framework I am associated with is The Shingo Model. The Shingo Guiding Principles ask us to seek perfection, embrace scientific thinking, focus on process, assure quality at the source, flow & pull value, think systemically, and create value for the customer. Additional Principles encourage us to apply scientific rigor to the human aspect of continuous improvement, such as respect every individual, lead with humility, and create constancy of purpose. In other words, build a cultural basis for the continuous improvement journey.

If you have read my blogs, you know that I wholeheartedly agree with these principles and have been travelling on this journey with our company for eight years since reading Jeff Liker’s book “The Toyota Way” and five years in earnest with two sensei. As part of this journey we regularly present at and attend conferences, host local workshops, and participate in workshops arranged by others.

So here is my dilemma. When asking for the lead time to implement Lean, the perplexing answer is that it takes 5-10 years. In addition, a second dilemma is that there are many thoughts on how to implement Lean, depending on your Lean coach, consultant or sensei. For the implementation of sustained Lean, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what is implemented, a defined process of how it is implemented, nor a predicted lead time. These of course are all aspects that Lean is keen to teach its students and their companies. In appearance, Lean itself does not seem to practice what Lean preaches.

Let’s look at the lead time as an example. Today’s environment changes faster than ever and will most likely continue to speed up further. So, is it reasonable to ask a CEO to enter the company into a Lean transformation that takes five years or more? The CEO would also find it difficult to find a consensus on the process or the outcomes. There would be few outstanding outcomes, some questionable ones, and many failures.


Let’s continue from my previous blog, in particular Yuval Harari’s book “Homo Deus”

Yuval categorises our reality into three distinct categories; objective reality, subjective reality and intersubjective reality. Objective reality relates to solid objects, science and facts that are perceived in the same way by all humans; for example, one can choose to ignore gravity, yet it stills applies to all of us. Subjective reality relates to our personal perceptions, feelings, pain, etc. Then there is intersubjective reality – the stories that humans create – and because enough of us believe in them they become “real” and as such can be extremely powerful.

For example, the fact that green pieces of paper can be exchanged for food, diamonds and other fanciful or essential items. The “fact” that we have countries and corporations also belongs into this realm of intersubjective reality. Money, countries and corporations are not real objects. Their meaning would cease to exist if we all stopped believing in them and thus stopped supporting them. On the other hand, humankind has converted many intersubjective realities into objective realities. Science has replaced myths or beliefs with facts. For example, infections are not due to bad luck or an uber-human power, they are caused by bacteria. Infection hence can be cured by antibiotics rather than by a magic potions or rituals.

Lean reality


What does this have to do with a Lean transformation?

Intersubjective realities, stories we tell and believe in, don’t exist on their own. They have objective and subjective realities woven through them. And these are my current thoughts about the process of implementing Lean… We are building a cultural framework, a continuous improvement culture based on intersubjective realities, stories told, with objective reality, science thrown into the mix for good “measure”. It’s a pursuit of transforming a complex adaptive system without necessarily understanding the system and its leverage points. It’s using the scientific principle of trial and error to justify the time required to change a certain culture, in a certain industry, in a certain country.

Contrary to this, antibiotics are objective, they work in every culture, in every industry, in every country. Antibiotics address the scientific root cause of an infection. The process of deploying them is therefore algorithmically determined, mapped out and reproducible. It does not take seven days, seven months or seven years based on the context. Antibiotics either kill the infective agent or they don’t, regardless of context.


Hence my question, “What is Lean?”

What is the science behind the deployment of Lean? What does it take to move Lean from an intersubjective reality to an objective reality? When can “Lean” approach a CEO and outline the transformation process, the lead time and the outcome – regardless of company culture, industry and country?

- Frank, CEO -


“I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin…” (Neo, The Matrix)

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Frank's Lean talks

  • Shingo Institute, Logan, UT, USA
  • MBA Program, University of Utah, USA
  • OC Tanner, Salt Lake City, UT, USA
  • Ophir-Spiricon, Logan, UT, USA
  • ELITechGroup, Logan, UT, USA
  • Sebel Furniture, Sydney, NSW, Australia
  • Telethon Kids Institute, Perth, WA, Australia
  • AME Business Excellence, Perth, WA, Australia

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