Posted by: knightbird | January 3, 2015

Competence and Lean Thinking

It’s puzzling for those of us who achieved so much with the business culture referred to as Lean Thinking to understand why it is not being rapidly adopted in the United States. In Alaska, we don’t have a single organization with an advanced culture of Lean. My efforts to convince businesses (both for profit, non-profit and lately governments) to look at the potential for Lean thinking fall on deaf ears. They all seem to think they are doing fine, and if they aren’t doing fine, they have a ready scapegoat to blame.

As a former college professor, I came across many students with an exaggerated opinion of their own competence. This was also puzzling, especially since they came to college to learn and improve their academic skills. Some students were not happy when I commented on the structure and content of papers they wrote. They had spent very little time researching, thinking and organizing their thoughts before they started writing. The result was often underwhelming. The resulting piece or writing was chaotic and disorganized. Yet their opinion remained resolute: it was a good paper so how come I couldn’t recognize that.

The same result occurs in our work lives. We believe we are doing a good job, especially when we compare ourselves to our peers. We attribute problems with the results we see to our coworkers who aren’t doing their jobs. When we are asked to evaluate our performance, we believe we are better than we actually are. When someone else evaluates us, we complain that they don’t know anything about evaluating performance. They may be right.

I have talked to many business leaders about of the benefits of adopting Lean Thinking as a management culture. I have gone on Gemba Walks with some and tried to teach them about the existence of poor processes and negative results. I helped sponsor a Lean Healthcare Conference in Alaska. In 10 years of advocacy for Lean Thinking, I have not recruited a single organizational convert. I have inspired a few individuals to tinker with Lean Thinking, but no one in the state of Alaska has achieved a high level of competence.

Research conducted by David Dunning and Justin Kruger (The Dunning-Kruger Effect) has helped me understand why there are no converts. If you are not sufficiently skilled at what you are attempting to do, you don’t have enough knowledge to judge your own competence. Dunning-Kruger say that “Where they lack skill or knowledge, they greatly overestimate their expertise and talent, thinking they are doing just fine when, in fact, they are doing quite poorly.”[i] Think about recent history and the decline of General Motors and Chrysler. Both companies suffered during the Bush Recession. GM was driven into bankruptcy while Chrysler ended up acquired by Fiat, an Italian auto company. Ford survived and avoided bankruptcy, but barely. Who thrived? Toyota. With over $40 billion in reserves, Toyota survived and continued its development. Why? Especially since all three companies were introduced to Lean Thinking in the 1990’s but failed to adopt it.

I have sat through many Kaizen (process improvement events) in a prior employer. A culture of continuous improvement as practiced at Toyota is fascinating, and incredibly rewarding. We approached Kaizen with a different mindset than the one I observe among the Alaska Native organizations I see. Most of our Native executive leadership come from a non-business background, or have worked their way through the ranks after starting with a different competency than business. Many come from law or finance. Some have academic business credentials. Very few have spent the thousands and thousands of hours of experience (and failure necessary) required to achieve competence. And precious few believe anything is wrong until they fail to achieve the results they believed were possible.

Toyota approaches business in a different way that GM, Chrysler or Ford do, at least until relatively recently. Leadership at Toyota have been well trained in a scientific method of management that values people enough to dedicate considerable resources to training and mentoring. Toyota recognized the pervasive existence of defects and problems. It celebrates a culture of recognizing problems and a refusal to let a defective product move to a customer or co-worker. If they cannot fix a problem themselves, a Toyota employee is empowered to stop the work and call in a team to solve the problem. Toyota recognizes that everything it does is part of an interconnected system with processes that have to be improved all the time. Toyota embraces a culture of problem recognition. And they have trained all of their employees to solve problems.

Part of the problem likely comes from boards and shareholders who do not have the education or experience to understand the competencies necessary to achieve outstanding success. As Dunning and Kruger have discovered, “…when people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. …they are left with the mistaken impression that they are doing just fine.”[ii]

It’s not my intention to belittle leadership in Alaska (or elsewhere in Indian Country) by this post. I have had to recognize my own limitations as well. I have spent the last 10 years immersed in Lean Leadership and Lean Thinking. I know that I have so much more to learn. But I am also aware that Dunning & Kruger have also recognized the “undue modesty of top performers” in their research. People who know what they are doing tend to have a good ability to understand and rate their performance more effectively, but they also underestimate their performance because of their competence.

So how do we resolve this dilemma of overconfidence in our own abilities? The Dunning-Kruger Effect gives us a research tool to help us understand how to improve our organizational performance. We need to stop reliance on self-performance or evaluation by people without the competencies necessary to evaluate. Toyota has already shown us how to evaluate. Do it scientifically. Stay away from political explanations. When evaluating something, identify that something. If it’s a process, map the process. Measure the baseline data. Calculate control chart variables. What is the average time to achieve the results? How many errors of defects occur? How many results are achieved within a specified time frame. There are plenty of measures available, but choose ones that can tell you if you are getting better.

Then chart the improvements over time, and resolve to get better every day. Continuously improve. Acknowledge problems and defects in your own performance and improve them.

I continue to press for Alaska Native organizations to adopt Lean Thinking as a management culture because it works. I have asked the state of Alaska to consider adopting Lean Thinking for its management culture because it works. Seek the competence necessary to understand whether Lean Thinking can work for your organization. Don’t adopt it unless you are convinced of its benefits. A flawed implementation of Lean can be very damaging. So many people are waiting for you to fail, and if you don’t have the competence to implement Lean, or are unwilling to spend the time to become competent, don’t give doubters more ammunition to display their incompetence.

[i] David Dunning, Kerri Johnson, Joyce Ehrlinger, Justin Kruger. “Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence,” Current Directions in Psychological Science,

Vol. 12, No. 3 (Jun., 2003), pp. 83-87

[ii] Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77 (6): 1121–34.

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