The instructor from England sat in front of me. We had been joined at the lunch table by two ladies, of different companies and nationalities, one British, one German, once pretty now etched across the face with experience, plenty of pet peeves.
The seminar on Lean Thinking was going full blast, and already several insights had been drawn into the application of the concepts in a non-manufacturing, so called 'knowledge' industry.
“I fully agree with what you have shared,” the British lady gushed, her plate more full of problems than the vegetation of age battling health salad. “Meetings, more meetings, where twenty people get into a room and one speaks for an hour, the rest drifting off to dreamland. That’s nineteen person hours down the drain.”
The German woman buzzed in, with the conviction in her voice making up for her heavy accent and lack of linguistic fluency.
“Twenty, for who listens? And all ze mails …”
The English lady picked up the thread like an expert weaver of reasoning. “Mails, and, well,the mailers. So many of them. Not only do you keep scanning the new ones and pressing shift delete, the mailbox runs out of space whenever you take a couple of days off. And soon you are clearing your mailbox for a good hour or two…”
“And attention flits … your sinking …zey are …”
“Yes, with mails and the ad hoc demands on our time … we want this with top priority by EOD. Heavens … drop everything and do this before getting back to what you were doing. We could boost our productivity by at least 200% if it was not necessary to re-gather thoughts every second minute because of changing management priorities and press releases…”
I decided that gobbling burger and french fries and was not ideal contribution to what was on paper a conversation – corporate trainings imply creating connections as well.
“A friend of mine – a psychiatrist – says that people in corporate jobs, especially in the Information Technology sector, are prone to Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder.”
My nugget of Dr. Roy’s wisdom was submerged in the tide of tirade against current corporate processes. “Even if everyone creates a rule to delete the mails that come from certain mailboxes, can you imagine the amount of effort it would take on the part of the employees to blah blah blah blah ….”
Once the number of blahs had reached the vicinity of the myriad, our instructor looked up from his soup for the first time and asked, “But, can you actually change the situation? Can you stop the mails, the ad hoc requests and meetings?”
English and German agreement has been historically hard to come by, but the two ladies nodded their synchronized heads and started planning the change process.
“Yes, it can change if we blah blah blah blah ....”
“It is ze finking zat needs blah blah zis zat blah blah zis zat”
French fries may be in drastic unhealthy contrast to health salad, but the crispy, oily, salty bites do take your mind off excessively motivated manifesto. I wondered whether the instructor diving deep into the bottom of his soup bowl was an equivalent evasive action. The ladies were in their late forties, so I was not too keen on indulging the visual senses either after shutting down my aural ones.
It was in the men’s room that he winked at me.
“Our dear ladies are very passionate.”
“If there is one thing I have learned in all my working years, it is never to expect much from my job.”
Perhaps politically incorrect, and hence, it strengthened the bonds of fellowship. The instructor winked at me again and raised his thumb.
“That’s what I call real experience.”
“Isn’t that a bit unusual coming from an intense instructor of lean thinking?”
He looked at me with twinkling eyes.
“You think so? I would say your attitude of not expecting too much from your job is probably the best lean thinking I have witnessed, if you speak on a personal note.”
We came out into the lobby and he continued.
“If you try to change corporate organisations because you are struck by excellent ideas, and expect things to change for the better, what do you think usually happens?”
“I generally ended up fighting a lot of bureaucracy in my young and inexperienced days.”
“Exactly,” he laughed. “You will strive to change the whole process of working, fight losing battles with managers who have long back lost their ability to listen. Can you fight the corporate demands of immediately preparing a presentation because the client has smiled at the account manager from the twenty fourth floor as he was entering the building? Will you ever get away saying that ad hoc requests are not lean because it clutters your thought?”
“So the best thing to do is expect nothing more. You can’t change it. And by this method of Lean Personal Thinking, you save a lot of wasted personal energy, emotions and time in trying to change the machinery.”
“Tell me P***,” I said, “Do you see the same sort of useless effort and inefficiency in every company?”
He nodded and looked surreptitiously to each side.
“Every company can increase its efficiency by at least 100% and reduce costs incredibly ... but that is not to be.”
He smiled and took his seat in the lounge, in no apparent hurry to get the post lunch session started.
“What is a corporate organisation? It is not a cutting edge research centre where only the best can get the required job done. A corporate organisation is nothing but a networked organism in the animal kingdom of society ...”
“That’s new ...”
“Not really. Have you heard of Cybernetics?”
“Isn’t it a subject which deals with machine response ...?”
“More than that. It was developed to study machine behaviour, but it is a cross discipline study of the behaviour of any dynamic system, be it machine or organism. There is a very complicated book by Stafford Beer which talks about the Cybernetics of a Firm. In that the organisation is treated as an organism ...”
“The author’s last name sounds ominous.”
“Okay, I will give that to you. But in effect, corporations are the source of livelihood for a great number of people. In the field of socio-cybernetics, it is governed by a theory of the survival of the fattest."
I almost threw half my coffee down my trachea.
“What was that?”
“Not too surprising, my friend. Whereas survival of the fittest is definitely true for evolution, for survival of a species it also has to have a degree of fat. Look at the human body. Even considering all the modern day fitness fanatics, a minimum percentage of body fat is essential”
“And where does the corporation come into the picture?”
“If the corporation is viewed as a creature, then believe me, this animal needs a lot of fat to survive. Else, with lean liposuction, it will be drained into an elitist work environment, something it was not meant to be. A thousand employees mean a lot of mediocrity, and this mediocrity has to survive – and climb the corporate ladder as well. And in this survival of the fattest, lean and efficiency does not really enter the picture. Inefficiency is essential. Else almost always efficiency can be increased threefold while decreasing man power by fifty percent ...”
I wondered about this for a while as the corporate executives walked about in their smart suits.
“Are you serious?”
“Never been more. If you want me to see me as a comedian, you have to follow me into the class. You think you won’t get mailers about the great week ahead and what the dumbass CEO said in the latest issue of Financial Times? All because of this lean fad? How will the great communication wokforce of the company make its living? Half of that team will have to leave. Makes sense?”
“Make that 88% of the team. Yes it does.”
“I will give you a very painful, if not absolutely relevant example, the mention of which tugs at the strings of my heart. But, you, a Dutchman, won’t really feel my sorrow. You know what Ashes is?”
“Of course ... I don’t smoke myself, but ...”
“Forget it ... I am English, from Sheffield. A cricket buff. Ashes is the name given to the traditional England versus Australia test match rubber. Ah, in Amsterdam rubber has a different connotation. However, let me say that whoever wins the series is said to win the Ashes. The countries have been playing each other for over a hundred and thirty years ...”
I was interested. “A Malcolm Gladwell sort of example, is it?”
“Overall, except a few years in the fifties, using questionable methods in a thirties series and against a couple of weak Australian teams in the seventies and eighties, it has been the land down under who has generally been on top. They have won more than a hundred and thirty tests against us, while we are still struggling to reach a hundred. And guess what ... in spite of playing more or less the same number of test matches over the same period of time, the efficient Australians have capped just over four hundred players. While we English have had six hundred and fifty.”
“So, efficiency means fewer hands ...”
“Yes, and hence, less employment. Cricket is a highly specialised sport. Think of any corporate job. most people can do it, with an apology of training."
“Come on ...be generous.”
“Including teaching Lean processes, let me add. So, in the corporate world, the numbers are yet more skewed in favour of inefficiency. And think of the number of hands it is necessary to cut off if efficiency rules. Society cannot afford that. An organisation is a complex creature with fierce survival instinct. At every level, it rebels against efficiency. There is a sort of Heisenberg principle in the corporate world ...”
“Not uncertainty of measurement, but of improvement ... Efficiency of an organisation cannot be improved without modifying its size. Hence, given a constantly great number of people, we cannot have efficiency. Ironically, in such organisations, growth is equated in terms of the number of people employed. And the unpleasant truth is that people now touted as management gurus, who claim decisions taken straight from the gut, now speak of management strategies, six sigma, lean processes as their roadmaps to brilliance - all of them have used rationalising to power their career.”
“The ones who did not tilted the balance in their way by manipulating other factors ... it is the survival or the social organism in question ... so if fat is not cut out, it needs to be compensated by discharge of undesired substances ...”
“I guess you are mixing up metaphors.”
“I guess in that case you know what I mean. www.Cleanupge.org is a good reference site.”
The two ladies poked their synchronised heads out of the classroom door. My new friend signalled that he would be on his way.
“I will revert back to my tutor mode and become a champion of lean thinking. However remember what I told you, and don’t try to do too much about it. Remember, think lean for yourself.”
“Cool. Thanks a lot, P***.”
“If I had said all this to the ladies, they might have tried to reform the whole system ... with protest marches and demonstrations against corporations. I am not here to teach all that. I love lean thinking. But, you already have insight into the corporate world, as you proved with your observation in the toilet. It is rare knowledge that I have shared with you ... share it with prudence.”
“Ouch,” I said. “I was wondering whether to blog it. Share it with the world.”
He laughed. “Only if you don’t mention my name. You can blog. That is actually sharing knowledge prudently and in a lean manner. Do it once, and only the seekers will find it. The rest will either not read it or find it too bitter for their convictions to digest. So post by all means.”
We walked into the class again and within minutes I was jotting down my thoughts. Lean Personal Process, Survival of the Fattest, Social Cybernetics, Corporate Heisenberg Principle ... this was one training session I would not forget.