Black belts, magicians, and the willing suspension of disbelief.


My friend, Roger, leads the lean initiative at a health care system in Florida. Roger is a 23-year veteran of GE Healthcare, with more than his share of colored belts and fancy titles ("Quality Leader") to his name. He knows his 3 Ps, his 4Ms, his 5Ss, his 6 Sigmas, and his 7 Wastes inside and out. He's a damn nice guy, an amateur magician, and -- as I discovered over the past few weeks -- quite the philosopher about his work.

For Roger, leading a lean transformation is just like doing magic. Not that it requires real supernatural powers, of course (though they would certainly come in handy). But as he explains it, the key to doing a really great trick -- to creating, not "real" magic (that's impossible after all), but the magic moment that leaves your jaw on the ground in disbelief -- is to first become an actor who totally and completely believes in his own magic. In other words, if the magician doesn't believe that he really can change the queen of diamonds into the ace of spades, the audience won't believe it either. It's the same belief that separates Laurence Olivier's Hamlet from my 14-year old nephew's Hamlet. Olivier believed he was Hamlet, so Hamlet's words were his own. My nephew just played at Hamlet, memorizing the lines and reciting them.

Creating a true lean transformation means believing totally that it will work. That the people involved in the process have the capacity to change. That the colossal amount of systemic waste and frustration can be eliminated. That management really is committed to lean at the most fundamental level, and isn't just treating it as the flavor of the month. That "lean" won't be followed by "mean" and used to justify layoffs. Lee Fried of Daily Kaizen provides some excruciating examples of lean gone bad here. Regardless of the organization's or group's history, the lean leader has to believe with every fiber of his being that this time it's different, and it's for real.

For the participants, too, embarking on a lean journey is similar to watching a magic show. The audience at a magic show has to want to be tricked. They have to be willing to be sucked into the magician's world. They have to accept his patter, and be willing to believe that the coin really did pass through the table. Even though intellectually they know it's impossible. It's the willing suspension of disbelief that makes for the magic moment, the "Holy crap! Did I just see that?" reaction. That's why learning the secret to a trick is unfailingly disappointing: we say we want to know how it's done, but there's a part of us that really, really *wants* to believe in magic, and it's that part of our minds that gets so sad when we find out that -- sigh! -- there really is no such thing as magic.

Workers  -- even skeptical workers -- in a lean transformation also have to want to believe that there's magic in lean. If they sense that it's just another way to get more work out of them in an effort to bolster executive compensation packages, it won't work. If they think that it's the first step in a nefarious plan to fire people, it won't work. If they see it as just another set of tools (Last week: six sigma statistical analysis. This week: takt time.), it won't work. As Lee Fried wrote in his last post,

Most people don’t get excited by the principles, tools and concepts.  Instead, they get excited and engaged when their lives and the lives of their patients are improved through the use of the principles, tools and concepts.

No, workers have to want to believe in lean -- in the respect it offers people and in the opportunity it holds for growth.

Roger (and many others far wiser than I) often says that lean is all about people. The tools are just tools. It's the people that make the system work. And that's like magic, too. The tricks are simple. It's the belief, by both the magician and the audience, in the possibility of real magic that makes it special.

3 Comments