Guest Articles

Why Lean and Creativity are the Perfect Combination!

Do you think that the words “Lean” and “creativity” go together? I do! However, many people that I meet in the process improvement and business communities are surprised by that. “But Lean is so structured and methodical. It’s about standardizing everything and making everyone work in exactly the same way. That’s the opposite of creativity, isn’t it?” I’ve heard this – or a version of it – so many times, that I’ve lost count! Why do people believe Lean and creativity are so opposite? Why do they believe that they can’t – and don’t – exist together? I believe that there are two reasons:

An incorrect understanding of what Lean is…and…
An incorrect definition of creativity!
First, let’s talk about Lean. Although people often think of Lean as a set of tools to remove waste and speed up processes, the Lean, or Toyota Way (which I much prefer to use), is grounded in the basic precepts of Sakichi Toyoda:

(You can find more about these precepts at : History of Toyota) As you can see, the concept – and value – of being creative – is highlighted in the second precept. And, as a company, Toyota has been, and continues to be, extremely creative. They’ve created more effective and efficient ways to work, unbelievable advances in automotive technology, and are now working on fulfilling their global vision of ‘leading the future mobility of society, enriching lives around the world with safest and most responsible  ways of moving people. Through our commitment to quality, ceaseless innovation and respect for the planet, we strive to exceed expectations and be rewarded with a smile.”  Vision and Philosophy of Toyota Although many people see Lean as a compilation of tools such as Value Stream mapping, 5S, Kanban, Standard Work, and A3s etc. as Toyota itself states, and as Jeff Liker and I write about in The Toyota Way to Service Excellence: Lean Transformation in Service Organizations, Lean isn’t about copying the tools Toyota uses in order to reduce waste and speed up processes. It’s about constantly creating new and better ways to serve each of your organization’s customers and fulfill your organization’s mission by passionately pursuing your purpose, for the long-term, based on your organization’s guiding values. So, if Lean isn’t about rigidity and copying already created tools…what about creativity? Isn’t creativity just for artists? And the people who work in the marketing department of our organizations? Engineers…the people who work on the shop floor…accountants…business analysts…they aren’t creative, are they? That’s the second misconception. That ‘normal’ people, those doing everyday jobs, aren’t creative. And that’s one of the saddest misconceptions that I encounter in almost every organization I visit. As I explain in my new book, How to Coach for Creativity and Service Excellence: A Lean Coaching Workbook, each of us is innately creative. It’s part of our humanity! Think back to your childhood, or if you have children, or know children, to how creative each of them is! Buy them an expensive holiday present and what do they want to do? Play with the box! Leave them alone for a few hours and they find many creative ways to take up that time…some of which may not be endorsed by ‘management’! Unfortunately, as we grow older, for a variety of reasons, we lose that connection to our innate creativity. And, many people come to believe that creativity is:

If you, like most people I meet, believe the first definition, I’m going to ask you to stop…and change, instead, to the second! The Karyn Ross definition of creativity! That creativity is simply combining knowledge and ideas that you have from your – and others’ – previous experiences…to make something new and different! A great example of this is the smart phone! At its core, it’s a phone, a camera and a tiny, hand-held computer, all rolled together in one. Three older, already known technologies, put together in a new way…and not created by artists, or people we currently may think of as ‘creative’ types, but by engineers, people who work on the shop floor, and all kinds of ‘regular’ people! So, if Lean isn’t about tools…and is really about creating new and better ways to serve customers and fulfill organizational purpose for the long-term…and creativity isn’t about flashes of inspiration that come down from the sky…and strike other people and not us…but about combining ideas from our own, and others’, previous experiences, what can we, and our organizations, do differently? First, we can stop thinking that Lean is a rigid methodology and set of tools incompatible with creativity. Second, we can stop limiting ourselves to using Lean to solve only already known problems; and to thinking that PDCA (the Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle) is simply a scientific approach to closing the gap when we drop below a production standard, or to a customer calls to complain that something has gone wrong. (Because a defect already delivered creates an unhappy customer…one that is already at risk for switching their business from our organization to a competitor’s!) What we can do, instead, is realize that PDCA is the creative process that we can use, just like Toyota, to turn what we imagine – ideas for better ways to serve customers – new service and product offerings – into very practical realities. Realities that meet our customers’ wants and deeper, underlying needs, now and for the future, and that will allow our organization to flourish and thrive for the long term creating a better future for all of us. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

For more information about Karyn Ross, please visit her websites: Connect with Karyn on social media: LinkedIn: Twitter: Instagram: @krclean4service   and @lovekindnessbuttonproject Facebook: All of Karyn’s books are available on Toyota Way to Service Excellence: Lean Transformation in Service Organizations How to Coach for Creativity and Service Excellence: A Lean Coaching Workbook Big Karma and Little Kosmo Help Each Other (All proceeds support the Love and Kindness Project Foundation)