Monday, September 18, 2017

Viva South Africa

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

Sawubona, kunjani, ngiyaphila!

Just back from splendid South Africa and the 2017 Kwazulu-Natal (KZN) Lean Conference.

A deep bow to Melanie Vaness and the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business team for planning, organizing & managing an unforgettable three days. (Thanks for the Zulu lessons too…)

My daughter, Katie, and I were lucky enough to tour South Africa afterward and to get at least a small sense of its wonders. “South Africa gets inside you, changes you,” Melanie said, and she was right.

Cape Town, Cape Point, Stellenbosch, the Natal Midlands, Phinda, Drakensberg, St. Lucia wetlands, Umhlanga and the Indian Ocean coast. I am forever a South Africa fan and supporter.

I begin to understand Nelson Mandela’s dream of a ‘Rainbow Nation’, and his greatness as a leader. I met leaders at every level, and of every rainbow shade, and was much impressed by their patriotism – and by their embrace of Lean.

South Africans are a practical lot. They like things that are simple, robust and effective. Hence, Lean.

To be sure, the Rainbow Nation is in political turmoil and the next few years are critical. (See: Racism Scandal & Bell Pottinger Disgraced)

I am confident that civil society will prevail and that a credible alternative government will emerge in the 2019 elections.

Beyond its beauty and majesty, the Rainbow Nation is a beacon, a metaphor, a harbinger of a fine future. Viva South Africa.

Hlala gahle – stay well.


Monday, September 4, 2017

Why is Business Transformation so Hard? Lessons from the ‘Back Pain Industry’

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

Many fine discussions these days about the above question.

Thanks to Bob Emiliani & other colleagues for their cogent questions & reflections.

Let me add a few thoughts based on my observations of another field – the so-called “Back Pain Industry” – another area wherein smart, capable people can’t seem to do what their trying to do. The back pain industry is

a) Enormous (> $ 100 billion USD), and
b) Doesn't seem to work. (Some common back treatments are not only ineffective, they’re harmful. See: Watch your back! & 30 Surprising back pain statistics)

What’s going on here? Any lessons for Lean/Continuous Improvement leaders?

Here’s my personal experience.

The back pain industry doesn’t seem to work, but some individual practitioners are extremely effective. My sport physiotherapist, for example, the splendid Janique Farand, has helped to keep my spine strong & supple for the past decade. I’m more active, and in better shape now than I was twenty years ago. A few years ago I even returned to Aikido practice, which severely tests back strength and flexibility. No problem, knock on wood. (Am throwing the young fellows around, and getting thrown, like in the old days.) All this despite significant disk deterioration in the L1 to L5 vertebrae. “Degenerative disk degeneration (DDD)”, my physician & specialist told me. “Normal wear & tear. You’ll have to learn to live with it.”

I don’t want to be misunderstood. All the people I’ve met in the back pain industry are capable, committed and hard working. One of them is clearly a great sensei. But they all work for major healthcare organizations and are constrained by ‘protocols’ sent down from on high. Woe unto them if they deviate from protocol!

Janique, by contrast, runs a small private physiotherapy (PT) practice specializing in sports medicine. Her diagnosis and understanding of root causes seems to be much deeper. She is ‘in the gemba’, if you will, closely observing what’s there. Janique is a detective, guided by her professional training, experience & acute knowledge of the latest advances. Is it any surprise that her countermeasures are deeper and more effective than the back pain industry’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach? (“I couldn’t do what I do if I worked for a major clinic or hospital,” she tells me.)

Here are here core countermeasures include a) Daily inversion using an portable inversion table, b) vigorous core strengthening exercises, c) natural anti-inflammatories (GLA, turmeric, ginger), and d) massage.

(I shared her diagnosis and treatment plan with the top neurologist in town. “Excellent,” he said. “Please continue.”)

“You have to work at it and be a bit lucky with chronic illness,” my PT tells me. “But you can be strong & fit into your eighties and beyond, knock on wood!”

Any lessons here for Lean/CI and business transformation professionals?
  1. Top-down improvement is slow & stupid. Bottom up improvement is smart, but can be chaotic. (Janique’s professionalism & experience are invaluable here.). This is called ‘Carlson’s Law’.

  2. Senior leaders should define purpose overall direction (the ‘banks of the river’ or design space). They should reduce hassles for their people, then trust them to figure it out, based on what they see in front of them.

  3. Respect the folks at the front line. Invest in them – give them the skills to improve the work. Then, let them do so.

  4. To truly grasp the situation you have to go see for yourself. It’s hard to manage or improve anything from on high. In fact, you usually make things worse.

  5. There are very few magic bullets. You have to work hard and stay with it. But if you do, very little is impossible.

I’m reminded of my physicist friend’s charming bumper sticker: GRAVITY – NOT JUST A GOOD IDEA. IT’S THE LAW.

There are immutable laws of transformation, no? We ignore them at our peril.

Best regards,


Monday, August 21, 2017

When You’re Convinced You’re Right, You’ve Lost Your Ability to Learn

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

A deep bow to the late great psychologist, John Bradshaw, for the title. Dr Bradshaw, a genuine healer, recognized the corrosive effect of parental self-righteousness on children and families. [Bradshaw On: The Family: A New Way of Creating Solid Self-Esteem]

The philosopher, Eric Hoffer saw self-righteousness as the driving force behind mass movements and fanaticism [The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements]

Self-righteousness is also corrosive to personal growth, and hence to lateral learning in an organization (Yokoten in Japanese). The confident, convinced and unquestioning mind is closed. ‘Been there, done that!’ is its motto.

Self-righteousness is usually caused by hubris, the ancient Greek word for arrogance, and occasionally by fatigue, laziness, and fear. People who are overwhelmed often invent mental shortcuts

What’s this got to do with management systems and leadership?

A strong management system comprises clearly defined end-of-pipe and process goals, visual management, daily huddles that highlight at each level:
  • What’s going well,
  • What’s not going well, and
  • Why

Good leadership is about building a strong management system, and strong people, who can bring it to life. Good leaders try to live the great Paul O’Neill’s mantra:
  • What did we discover is broken today?
  • How did we fix it?
  • How will we share the learning?

In my coaching experience suggests companies and leaders who try to live this way prosper beyond their wildest dreams.

But first we have to recognize the corrosive effect of self-righteousness. We have to cultivate debate, dissent, and a healthy skepticism.

We have to recognize that reality is far bigger than any of us can imagine. We see but a tiny sliver of it, and have no business being self-righteous.

Best regards,


Monday, August 7, 2017

Is Lean a Set of Principles or a Set of Tools?

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

“What is your thinking way, Pascal-san?”

Thanks all, for your thoughtful replies to the above question. Fine insights from many good people.

I’m reminded of a gemstone, that when held to the light reveals an array of color.

I suggested that Lean is a set of principles that turn into methods & tools, and that the latter may vary with the application.

Principles are ideas; methods are the action that bring them to life. To quote my friend & colleague, Skip Steward, “Principles and methods work hand in hand. Without one, the other will fail…”

A core principle like ‘Make Problems Visible’ will entail different methods in different situations. Different methods in, say, a consumer goods supply chain, than in a hospital pharmacy.

Much of my personal practice entails coaching senior executives. I start with the principles, which immediately gets their interest. Underlying message: “Lean is a transformational strategy, hard to do, but a game-changer.”

Starting with tools sends a different message. “Lean is like a skilled trade – helpful, useful, worth doing, but not a game-changer.”

Many of you wrote that Lean is a culture, a way of thinking. Well said, and I would add: we create a culture when a large group of people understand, absorb and consistently practice a set of principles.

Our Toyota senseis emphasized principles above all. A common question: “What is your thinking way?”

Lean principles (thinking) are the road to transformation. They open the door for elegant, intuitive and useful Lean methods, and help senior leaders understand Lean’s full potential.

Best regards,