Lean, the Four-Letter Word: Dan Markovitz on his new book – and his newfound approach to teaching op-ex

The core principles at the heart of Dan Markovitz’ latest book, Building the Fit Organization, are the very essence of lean thinking. Just don’t expect to see the word “lean” past the introduction. Or, for that matter, any references to a certain automaker, its namesake production system, or a litany of Japanese words.

And that’s the point.

D. Markovitz
D. Markovitz

Building the Fit Organization, which the author breaks down in an exclusive half-day workshop as part of COE’s Leading Through Excellence summit on April 12, is Markovitz’ response to a disconnect he sees in how we communicate lean concepts and leadership principles to our people. We recently spoke to Markovitz about what that disconnect is – and how first book since his Shingo Prize-winning A Factory of One tackles it.

COE:  There are a ton of books on lean out there. What inspired you to write this one?

Dan Markovitz: Over the years I’ve seen a lot of really smart people work with companies trying to improve operational performance by driving a lean transformation – and yet the number of companies that actually succeeded is vanishingly small. This book is an exploration, my attempt to explain one of the root causes of this and rectify it.

COE: So what is that root cause?

DM: We’re asking people to think about their work differently, yet we make it unnecessarily difficult for them to accept it. I see a lot of people using the language of Toyota, literally using Japanese, telling people working in a bank or a hospital how Toyota builds cars. Their very first response is to lean back in their chairs, cross their arms, and say, “We don’t make cars.” The leader, consultant, or improvement professional then has a huge uphill battle to explain that they’re not trying to turn them into factory workers. Then, after a week, a month, or six months, people may start to get it. If we could speak to them using analogies and metaphors that make sense to them, all the sudden we don’t have to go uphill.

COE: You’re definitely not letting consultants such as yourself off the hook here.

DM: It’s been a failure of imagination on our part to not be able to say, “Let me put this in a language that makes sense to you.” There’s nothing requiring Japanese to describe these ideas – they happen to have just been described in Japanese first. If we can express these ideas in English that resonates with people now, it makes it easier to get to “That totally makes sense. I get it.”

COE: You went with a physical fitness metaphor for your book. Why?

building fit organization_coverDM: Fitness works for me – I used to be a competitive runner and a running coach. You could just as easily use a metaphor of music or writing, all kinds of things. I believe that if we’re a little more creative about the way we tell the story, the way we present the ideas, it’ll be a whole lot easier for us to sell the ideas and get people to embrace and implement them.

COE: You also made the very conscious decision to leave tools out of your book. What led to that?

DM: Oftentimes, we lead with tools and we end up losing people. The tools that people learn – 5S, for instance – often are designed to solve specific problems. Who knows what your specific problem is? With this book, rather than talking about tools, I wanted to talk about principles. It’s important that people grasp the fundamental concepts and understand how to become better, fitter organizations before messing around with tools.

COE: What do you see as the audience for your book and, by extension, your workshop on April 12?

DM: Certainly both are for people who are relatively new to the idea of continuous improvement but might be intimidated by the all the Toyota, 5S, kanban, water spider talk. The second audience, though, is companies who have started lean or some continuous improvement program and seen it stall out. This is a way for them to reintroduce it in a fashion that would be more accessible. I also think this would be really valuable for leaders in an organization. The principles I talk about really need to be lived and embodied by leadership. If a leader’s not committed to a fit organization, it’s not going to take hold.

Learn more about Dan’s session, and others being offered at Leading Through Excellence, on the official event website.

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