Lean Transformations Group

Getting to Better Organizational Performance Means Consciously Being Humbled

Three years ago as part of a potential Lean study group, Lean Enterprise Institute founder Jim Womack and I visited several companies in the Boston area to see if we could create a lean learning cohort, a club of leaders who would be dedicated to learning together about how to continuously improve through lean thinking. What we found, at least among the companies that were “doing lean” (versus “being lean”), was the attitude that there was not much these teams needed to learn. These teams thought they were prime examples of lean “best practices.” These folks were “knowers” looking for validation more than folks who wanted to learn something new.

Even more interesting? When we found an organization that was humble about the lean work they had done, the larger group wished to exclude them as being not worthy of learning from! 

Indeed, organizations that I visit generally fall into one of these two categories:

  • Humble organizations. These leadership teams expect you to find opportunities for them to improve. While they know they have done good work, for every improvement they expect see 10 more opportunities for improvement. These organizations are fairly uncommon.
  • Knower organizations. Leaders here may ask what you think, but more often than not, they will reject your ideas as “not being possible.” This reaction is a clear message to keep your opinions to yourself. You can see during a tour that the employees are treated to this same “thanks, but no thanks” attitude.

I'll choose to work with a humble organization over a knower organization every time.

Touring a humble organization is a pleasure. Leaders in these organizations love being questioned and know how to question themselves. Team members assume there is a better way to do their work and will find that better way by engaging both internal and external resources. People demonstrate learning by running targeted experiments. People also enjoy talking about what has not worked and what they learned from it. Planned one-hour tours can easily take two hours or more. The questions are nonstop and move in all directions. Leaders and team members challenge their own thinking and their guests’ thinking, raising everyone’s thinking to a new level.  

In contrast, touring a knower organization is a chore. At these organizations, questions are seen as opportunities to tell you how good they are or why your question is wrong. Planned one-hour tours are normally 45 minutes (unless the leader gets on their soap box to preach about what they have done, and then the tour can feel painfully long!) Suggestions, perhaps around a different way of looking at what you both are observing, are met with denial, rejection, and justification. I commonly hear people say that what they do is “special,” so an outsider cannot begin to understand the complexity! Truth be told, most outsiders face equally complex situations and, given the opportunity, have a useful point of view to explore and learn from.

Much has already been written, discussed, and presented on the importance of humble leadership. Edgar Schein’s work is the gold standard of this thinking, and my colleague David Verble has done quite a bit of work in this area. The subject of leadership and its impact on culture has also been covered well, including relationships between leadership and “value creators.” So I will not write more about these things. Instead, I just want to offer a simple observation... In order for teams to continuously improve, they have no choice but to be dissatisfied with their current state. They need organizational humility.

My recent journey with a humble company that produces a complex custom engineered product in three plants across the United States is a perfect example how being humble drives exceptional results. I'm glad to report that today, after two years of success, this team is even more humble about the challenges that lay ahead for them! Productivity, profit, salaries, and delivery are all improving.

Do you have a hunch that your company could stand to be more humble about your operations? Consider doing the following.

  • Run the test! Invite an outsider into your operation for a one hour tour and ask them to be completely honest with you about what they see. (Let us know if we can help.)
  • Question your guest about what they see and do so with the purpose of developing an understanding of what they are looking at, not to defend your current condition. Ask yourself, is their view different than the view you currently hold? Is it insightful?
  • Reflect: Were the problems your guest identified previously invisible to you?
  • See if your organization is open to listening to what your guest says that they see.
  • Notice if the visit ends up being longer than originally scheduled and when your guest leaves, if you end up with a long list of things to investigate.

After this visit, if the reaction you get from your colleagues or leadership is, “We do not what them to come back,” ask yourself if your organization is really ready to continuously improve. You may just be stuck defending your current state!

When teams can learn to be humble, this opens up a whole new world of possibilities and moves the entire organization forward. I tell people, have a bias for action… Failure to get your desired results is okay; failure to learn is not okay. This humble mindset will help your organization’s performance take off.

Lean Transformations Group regularly visits high-performing, humble companies to offer a humble outsider’s view about where leaders and teams can build problem solving muscle and create more value for customers. As experienced leaders in manufacturing, product design, healthcare, and systems design and improvement, LTG partners also offer this service to a select number of startups and nonprofit organizations each year that are looking to improve their incomes. Inquire here and let us know if you are a woman and/or minority-owned business or nonprofit.

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