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When Process does our thinking for us

We have a way of turning methods and tools into something of a product—as if they were something we could visit a general store to purchase, bring to our workplace, and voila!, everything is fixed. 

The practice is called industrialization, a term I first heard applied in this way in a presentation from Dave Snowden, and the We here is a royal We since this practice is something that consultants and corporations do as a matter of course in the effort to scale their creation of value.

I’ve taken to labeling these products big-P process—the models, methods, methodologies, frameworks, tools, and anything else of their ilk which are indiscriminately applied in our organizations in the hope of solving problems.

Lean is an especially useful example. In Japan, when Kiichiro Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno were in charge, Lean wasn’t Lean. It was just the way Toyota did things.




Toyota’s way of doing things emerged as a result of the context of a post World War II economic recovery, when efficient manufacturing was necessary because raw materials were in short supply. So Toyota redesigned everything to support automation and the elimination of waste, and not just its manufacturing practices, but its human resources practices, its budgeting practices, its planning practices, and the rest of the company’s systems.

What is especially unique is that Toyota arrived at its way of doing things through thinking and learning. Toyota did not implement the Toyota production system. The Toyota Production System emerged from a consistent thinking and learning effort, an effort that even included a means of always questioning the prevailing way of doing things. 

(Think about that: their way of working has questioning their way of working built in!)

American manufacturers rightfully grew curious as Japanese cars became more affordable and of better quality and they did what any of us would do: attempted to copy this new manufacturing process in pursuit of the same ends. 

What they copied were the things that were easily replicable, the big-P processes of the Toyota production system, which by then had been becoming, with the help of American management consultants, the Toyota Production System. But what they did not copy because they could not copy was how the Toyota Production System was representative of how Toyota did everything, not only its manufacturing. Toyota’s entire enterprise was designed and honed to support the requirements of its manufacturing practices.

For American manufacturers to copy that they would have had to redesign everything. So what’s the point of copying if a complete re-imagination was required?

Well I guess that’s the point. 

“Corporations love process,” says Allen Holub, “Because they believe process is how you achieve good outcomes.” 

It is one thing to use an industrialized Kaizen big-P process to improve some little-p process in a department. It’s something else entirely to take the principles of Lean and reorient an organization in the effort to improve efficiency. Using the tools and methods of the Toyota Production System will only improve the operation insofar as the tools and methods are capable of delivering improvement in the context of the organization’s prevailing way of doing things. 

Lean isn’t a tool or a methodology for Toyota. It is how they do everything. But for many organizations that use Lean, Lean is one of many tools and methodologies used to improve efficiency. Using Lean in this way can only help an organization to the point where it meets the constraints of existing organizational practices, most especially related to human resources, budgeting, and technology. 

That’s all okay if we’re aware of the inherent limitations of an approach. But we’re … (usually) not.

My point here may be misconstrued so I want to be sure we’re communicating effectively. It’s not that Lean is the problem, it’s that Lean isn’t the solution—nor is design thinking, agile, Magnet, Balanced Scorecard, or any industrialized big-P process found in healthcare delivery organizations today.

The problem is by applying Lean, by applying Process, we essentially eliminate the consideration of context, which is the most important consideration when working in complexity. Industrialization systematically eliminates the need for thinking and learning because big-P process does those things for us.

This critique isn’t absolute. Yes, thinking and learning still happen in organizations that use industrialized big-P processes. But it’s rarely the kind of double-loop learning required. 

We don’t do enough thinking about our big-P processes and what those processes require and what those processes produce before employing them. We just use them, with little thought given to context, and even less thought given to the conditions required to ensure their success thinking they will work and then being surprised (at best) or moving on to whatever is next (at worst) when results aren’t what we’d hoped them to be. 

It makes for less effective work.

Has Lean led to improvement in organizations? Most assuredly so. Has Lean also resulted in lots of wasted effort? It has! Likely staggering amounts of waste! 

The same can be said of every other industrialized big-P process we put into use as a way to meaningfully change whatever it is we’re intending to change. 

What happens when we commit to big-P process (models, methods, methodologies, frameworks, tools, et. al) is this: We (more often than not) commit to not thinking originally about the situation we’re trying to use it in. That approach worked when work was complicated. Now it’s (more often than not) complex.

No black belt, green belt, best-selling book, training course, designation, nor certification is a substitute for what we need in addition to these things: awareness of context and better thinking and learning.

That’s the process for good outcomes.


That’s an endorsement of my weekly pep talk email from my good friend Jade. She’s trustworthy. She’s a healthcare person. And she’s working to make healthcare better through the work. I’m betting you’ll find it valuable every Wednesday, too.


My philosophy on email: Don’t send a bad one.


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