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In a Deep Sand

Lean Thinking Drives Lean Behavior


I recently had dinner in Amsterdam with a good friend and colleague who I consider one of the best management consultants I have had the opportunity to be associated with for many years. I always get some new insights when we chat but surprisingly this time the “lightbulb moment” came from a story of one of his personal experiences versus one of his business experiences.


I have always rightly or wrongly considered myself an adventurous person but when compared to my friend it looks like I just sit in a rocking chair. He recently went on a bike (motorcycle) trip with 4 friends through the deep sands of the desserts of Africa.   One challenge, among many, for dessert riding if to maintain and sometimes increase downforce on the rear wheel for traction while also lifting the front wheel to reduce “plowing” as much as possible. He worked with a professional trainer to improve his balance so he could more effectively shift his weight on the bike as conditions dictated. Also, when he got to Africa he practiced in the sand for a day.  Appearing well prepared, he and his buddies ventured through the dessert.  All was going well at speeds of 50-60 mph when a blinding sand storm (artificially created by a passing speeding Land Rover) completely surprised the riders.  Unfortunately things didn’t go well.  He buried his front wheel in the sand and went head over heels over the handlebars of the bike completely destroying the bike and seriously injuring himself (he is well recovered). I was struck by how he described what happened to his brain when confronted with the sand storm. His brain defaulted to behaviors that were familiar and habitual and had served him well in the past. The problem is that these behaviors did not suit him well for the sand storm conditions.  Had he behaved based on his training and practice he would had been fine. The other riders rode the storm without incident. I won’t get into the rest of the story about being seriously injured in the dessert in the middle of Africa but you can imagine.


It struck me that what happened to my friend this is exactly what is happening at one of my clients. For several years they have been considered the hallmark of a lean culture. Recently, however, the business began experiencing difficulties; their own sand storm.  Revenue is declining and quality has suffered, all of which is reflected in disappointing financial performance. Unfortunately they are not staying “true” to lean and are reverting to past behaviors of cost cutting, spending freezes (including training/development) project cancellations, etc. They have moved away from the principles and values that were evident and prevalent in the good times. In fact, the more perilous their journey, the further they have moved. The moral to this story is simple.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking that the principles and values of lean are embedded in your organization, regardless of how well it looks and feels. It’s easy to practice those principles and live up to those values when on the asphalt.  You will not truly know who you are until you are” in the deep sand”.


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