Lean is Jazz


Hot corporations know how to swing – USATODAY.com

Interesting article in the USA Today business section yesterday, an interview with jazz great Wynton Marsalis about how jazz concepts can apply to business. I'm a drummer (or at least used to be) and played in many jazz bands and jazz combos (as an amateur) through college and a few years after, so I read with interest.

Before reading, I thought: symphonic music is heavily scripted… sure the conductor has some leeway, but there is ONE person in charge. The orchestra has to follow that lead and play the notes as written (and more importantly, follow the conductor or get yelled at). It's a very top-down driven approach to music. Jazz, however, is improvisational… very little written music, but there is structure and a theme to keep it from devolving into chaos. I could see how jazz is more like lean — have a good structure to work from, but being empowered to use creativity to solve the problem (how to create great music?).

A few quotes from Wynton:

“When you listen to great jazz musicians, you hear the respect they have for each other's abilities. During a performance, most of the musicians' time is spent listening to others.”

Respect for people, a common lean theme. Jazz musicians trust each other's abilities and work together. Sure, symphony musicians listen to each other, but not in the same “listen and respond” sense of jazzers.

“When a group of people working together trust that all are concerned for the common good, then they continue to be in sync no matter what happens. That is swing. It's the feeling that our way is more important than my way. This philosophy extends to how to treat audiences, consumers, staff or dysfunctional families.”

In a strong functioning system, the power of the system is important. In a good system, when we all buy into the goals, we can handle subjugating our own interests for the interests of the organization (to reach a higher goal). That might sound disempowering, but some of the best feelings I ever had came from participating in the college marching band. The hard work and the discipline that I had to go through wasn't always fun, but the end result was great and it made the hard work worthwhile. It's been more rare that I've had that feeling in the business world, which is sad.

“In jazz, hierarchy is determined by your ability to play, not your position in the band. The philosophy of jazz is antithetical to the commoditization of people. It is rooted in the elevation and enrichment of people. The reason that jazz is the most flexible art form in the history of the planet is because it believes in the good taste of individuals. It believes in the human power to create wonderful things, and it embraces that instead of attempting to administrate it away with senseless titles and useless hierarchies.”

Don't you think lean values the “good taste of individuals?” That good taste means being creative, but working within a system. Neither jazz, nor lean, are complete free-for-alls. Lean is focused on enriching people, not treating them like a cost on the balance sheet. Companies like Home Depot struggle (and leaders fail) because they still have the symphonic notion of “the conductor knows all, the conductor is always right” (or at least Bob Nardelli did… by the way, I had three hits yesterday by people searching for “Bob Nardelli hated by employees”, what does that tell you?).

It's ironic that the phrase “takt time” is more closely associated with symphonies, than with jazz.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


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