What I Learned About Lean at a Theological Conference


I attended a conference this week where academics from the U.S., Canada, Europe, and other countries addressed thorny theological issues within a lively and growing church movement. I was there to support my son who was one of the organizers. Most of the sessions were way over my head, and included lots of very long words :-)) * But the Saturday morning session relating to “Multi-Ethnic Church” issues struck a LEAN CHORD with me.

Lean discussion groups are often populated with blogs and comments bemoaning the fact that most companies largely fail at making significant lean change. One of the common responses is the need for the executive leadership to be fully committed and knowledgeable. Many company leadership teams have taken this very seriously and have made strides to approach lean strategically.

What I learned at the conference was this; real lasting change requires active alignment of the leaders at every level.

The multi-ethnic church research was presented by an experienced professor. She has researched a number of U.S. churches with specific multi-ethnic strategies. She reported that the church senior leaders always have clear alignment with their strategy and policies. But the local pastors and other church workers surveyed show less than 30% alignment. The local people are of course at the front end of these much needed changes and, while they are fully on-board with the desired results, they do not have the band-width of time, understanding, and expertise to effectively make and sustain these crucial changes.

These same issues are rampant among lean manufacturers, healthcare organizations, construction companies, and many others pursuing radical lean improvement. These companies often have well thought-out lean strategies replete with X-Charts, A3’s, training programs, and initiatives that are driven down from corporate through to the groups, divisions, and plants. The local leaders are trained in lean tools and methods, but often they do not have the skills or the time to change the fundamental culture of their local operations. Similarly, the lean changes are often restricted to the primary operations so that sales & marketing, product development, finance and accounting, etc. are not aligned or involved.

What is the solution? The professor explained that policies and training are not enough to change paradigms. She also recognized that these changes are not easy. There needs to be a lot of small group interaction. Cross cultural meetings. Deliberate building of multi-ethnic teams. Leveraging current success even when it’s nascent. Adjusting the approach to local situations. And – most importantly – local leaders having personal ownership, clear but flexible plans, and the time available to nurture the changes. It’s a messy business.  It’s long term. It’s challenging; and it requires skill and patience.

Aligned Managers (1)Many companies just load their local people with more and more “programs”. These programs are often top-down initiatives. Most people recognize that for a local plant or division to have successful lean transformation there must be changes to the business culture. (New wine can not be stored in old wine skins).This includes such issues as measurements and their frequency, how people’s work-time is assigned, the role and behaviors of local leadership (as well as corporate leaders), new financial management, organization around value streams, active empowerment in every area of the work, and a clear change of focus toward the customer. Also needed is a “let’s go do it” atmosphere where people feel safe to make changes, experiment, review success and failure, change course, and learn from each other.

This kind of change can only be fully achieved when the local leaders have the authority and ability to shed the traditional thinking and develop new, lean ways of working. These are not slogans on powerpoints. They are real daily changes in what we do and how we work.  Like the churches seeking ethnic harmony, a well-meaning, top-down strategy will only be successful when the local leaders are aligned through the training, the tools, the time; and undivided focus to make it happen day by day.

I like the phrase a “Living Daily Practical Alignment to Lean Strategy and Action”. It’s a mouthful, but it does recognize that everyone has a part to play, and the work of lean transformation is done every day by every body. It’s a human process. It’s messy. It has it’s victories and it’s dismal failures; but out of both comes the knowledge needed to turn your piece of the company into a powerhouse of customer value and profitability.


*  The Hermaneutics of Relational Eschatological Anthropology. Mmmmm.

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6 Responses to What I Learned About Lean at a Theological Conference

  1. Tom Pryor says:

    I co-authored a business fiction book titled The Principles in 2003. The main character learned how to implement Activity Based Cost Management through a series of ten sermons from the Old Testament. So, to support your point, most, if not all business principle’s roots can be found in the Bible.

    Thanks for sharing. And well done for supporting your son.

    Tom Pryor

  2. Harvey Leach says:

    I’ve often thought about the similarities between the “culture” required for lean to work and what Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God was like. It seeemed that in all the leadership stuff we did as we went through our transformation, when we talked about changing long-established practices and behaviours, I kept “bumping into Jesus”. I have a half-baked talk for our Christian Business Leaders group on “was Jesus a lean leader?”. Strange that Japanese culture (or at least Toyota) is more kingdom-like than supposedly Christian influenced western culture!

    • BMaskell says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I have given no thought to similarities or otherwise of lean and the kingdom of God. I should probably leave that to the professors at the conference. I would recognize a need to eliminate waste within our own lives so as to have the “mind of Christ”.
      Good to hear from you.

  3. David Bovis says:

    You’ve nailed it with that piece. Many years ago, my Father was active in his local church … he listened to me coming back from Europe with tales of Lean application and increasingly over the years, how it was a people issue, which could benefit from a much deeper understanding of the formation of a shared Philosophy (Belief) via an increased knowledge of the Psychology and Neuroscience of ‘Change’ … ‘Alignment’ … i.e. a psychologically congruent approach to ‘Strategy Deployment’ …and this all combined to form an organisational Culture which either advanced or reduced performance.

    He saw the need for what I was teaching in the Church. He asked if I’d give a presentation, which I was happy to do, but we never worked it out before he passed away. Your article not only gets to the point for any and all leaders in any and all organisations – it triggered an electro-chemical neurological wiring and firing pattern i hadn’t experienced in a long time … in laymans terms … brought back some happy memories.

    And that highlights another point – As Wittgenstein once said, “the limit of my language is the limit of my world” – If the way we use language to construct our own world view requires words others cannot use in context, we will not be able to communicate what we can see. To address Hermaeutics, Heuristics, Kaizen or psychologically congruent strategies … first we have to do what’s best for others and close the gaps in language across the cultural layers within the organisation, between different ethnicity’s or departments. Once we can communicate, we can share a vision … when we can share such ‘context’ and ‘purpose’… we can create neural pathways, through Neurogenesis and strengthen them over time by remaining consistent… creating a new skin for the new wine. 🙂

    • Harvey Leach says:

      Hi David. Nice to bump into you here. I love that you get into the deep “workings of the brain” stuff here, even if a lot of it is way above my practical “do what works” (or laymen’s terms) head 🙂 We really must meet up.

    • BMaskell says:

      It is good to hear from you, and to receive your kind remarks.
      I must confess that Wittgenstein totally baffled me when I was studying modernist philosophy just as manipulating curvilinear coordinates to resolve theories in quantum mechanics. Fortunately, both of these were at the very end of courses and I could still pass the exams without displaying my mystified ignorance.
      I am glad you found my piece to be interesting and that you can relate it to your own situation. I am currently engaged in the development of (what I hope will be) a practical lean management system that encompasses the real issues. This situation where there needs to be alignment at every level is very practical, rarely seen, and essential for companies with serious intent to transform their work.

      All the best to you. I hope we can see each other again in the UK sometime. I come to Europe quite a lot and generally visit my mother near London.

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