What We Can Learn about Process Improvement from Two Old White Guys

Last weekend, I was thinking about my undergraduate days when I took a lot of philosophy courses at a small Catholic liberal arts college. I remember the classical Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle approaching reality from two different yet complementary angles. At the risk of overgeneralizing, Plato believed that reality existed in ideas from which you deduce truth about the world and Aristotle believed that reality existed in observable facts from which you induce truth about the world.

It then struck me that Lean thinking and practice incorporates insights from these two thinkers without intending to. Part of a process improvement exercise is to map out the Current State of a given process’s value stream (ie, the flow of value and non-value in a process from start to finish, where value is defined by the customer). Then, you map out the Ideal State of the process, ie, a process where there are no fiscal or regulatory constraints — something Plato would have felt at home doing. To many of us, the Ideal State mapping exercise sounds futile because we all know that in reality we have to still deal with fiscal and regulatory constraints. Redesigning a process with these fiscal and regulatory constraints in mind is the Future State. But, this skepticism about the Ideal State is our inner Aristotle coming out and challenging our inner Plato. Whether our bias is more towards Plato or Aristotle, both approaches are necessary to do. Unleashing the creativity required to envision an Ideal state helps to make sure that whatever we come up with for our Future State really does account for both empirical, practical reality and idealistic reality.

Another Aristotelian notion embedded in Lean thinking is the idea of sustained excellence measured by data and attained through continual practice called habituation. As Aristotle put it: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” In Lean thinking, this is where instituting standard work defined and agreed upon by the team helps to ensure that everyone in the process knows how to do each step of the process in a standard way and is held to customer-defined levels of performance to ensure high quality outputs. Process performance is in turn measured and controlled by a robust data collection plan. If the process performance gets out of whack, then the team revisits the process to see how it fell out of bounds — again using data. The process is then improved accordingly. The journey continues.

Somewhere, Plato, Aristotle, Edward Deming (the father of Quality), and Japanese thinkers behind Lean’s birth in Toyota Motor Corporation must be enjoying a healthy debate.

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