“Living Lean” Vignette – Good Illustration or a Bit of a Stretch?


Interesting article here: “Case in Point: Avoiding martial-arts moves by ‘pulling the Andon cord‘” that was in the Washington Post, of all places.

The piece, written by a duo of a professor and a consultant, attempts (I think) to make Lean and process improvement concepts by creating a scenario in the daily life of a family. But, I'm torn between thinking the example is helpful and thinking it's superficial. Is it really a good illustration of Lean?

To summarize the tale (and read it here):

  • Two brothers are squabbling over use of a tricycle
  • Mom gets out of the shower to address the argument
  • The boys work out a way to share the tricycle

The article describes the mom stopping the family “process” (the arguing) as going to the  gemba (the place where work actually occurs) and pulling an  andon cord (a factory method for signaling a problem and calling for a supervisor's help… which leads to a line stoppage if necessary to get the problem addressed).

One good lesson is that the mom (as supervisor) asks the kids what they think they can do to resolve their conflict… a good lesson, although I don't like analogies of workplace managers to parents (neither would the authors of the excellent book Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment  — as these analogies are demeaning to employees, as they aren't children).

I'd also avoid calling a problem at home a “defect.”

The kids decide to share the bike and the mom says  “Great problem-solving, guys.” I'm not sure the kids got to the root cause of the problem, but they did suggest a countermeasure.

Kudos to the mom in the scenario for testing the change over time, as she says:

 This idea will only work if we all agree to participate. Why don't we try it for a month? If a month goes by and we don't think this is working, we can think of something else. All in favor say, aye!”

The idea of testing a change for a period and reevaluating is a good practice and it's part of the PDCA/PDSA approach. But Lean isn't really a democracy where workers would vote on an idea… it's more a process of building consensus than voting.

Anyway, curious to hear your thoughts on the scenario and the effectiveness of vignettes like this in illustrating Lean concepts.

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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.


  1. I think analogies can be useful for understanding concepts as long as people remain aware of the fact the analogies are only examples, and they have limits.

    I agree with you that workers in a company are not children. Analogies with family situations are bound to have limitations when applied to the workplace. They aren’t necessarily harmful as long as people remember they’re just analogies.

    The boys squabbling over the tricycle is not a “defect,” it is normal behavior for children their age. The assumption that they ought to be quiet and nice and share sweetly all the time is an error.

    Maybe the analogy serves, inadvertently, at that level: Some of the assumptions management makes about what ought to happen in their organizations may simply be wishful thinking.

    The kids are not squabbling over the tricycle, really; they are vying for mom’s attention. They got it. There was no “organizational improvement” because, no doubt, they vie for mom’s attention quite frequently, using whatever context they happen to be in at the moment as the framework for it.

    If there were anything like an andon cord in the house, one of the boys should have pulled it. Instead, they succeeded in interrupting mom and getting her attention. That’s nothing at all like a lean factory operation.

  2. But there are many similarities between management and parenting. Many managers(and parents) want to control their people(kids) very closely and not give enough freedom to solve the problems that they encounter. They don’t trust each other much. BTW, I recommend the book “Unconditional Parenting” by Alfie Kohn for a lean child rearing philosophy.

  3. Hi Mark

    Like anyone a good analogy that relates to some part of life other than work can help, but this one is in my opinion just plain stupid.

    First nothing was truly solved or improved all that happens is the kids got mom out of the shower and got her attention, they still share a tricycle, and although now they agree to sharing it, we all know it won’t last they are kids after all.

    There was no process identified or improved, workers were not empowered to fix a problem, all that happened was the higher power stepped in and mandated a solution, let’s be honest neither kids nor most workers will argue against a boss/parent suggested idea, the question for approval is only politically correct behaviour, and is actually a rhetorical question or in other words an order.

    In a world where implementing Lean requires a shift away from neo-Taylor attitudes that workers are just lazy and dumb, using small child analogies actually re-enforces neo-Taylor attitude which is a big negative, it is also highly demeaning to workers.

    In home life there are dozens of places Lean can be applied, from organization, to cooking, shopping, etc. If you pull out a real viable adult only situation and had two adults discuss and solve the problem together you get a good Lean analogy, one that people will understand, and that there is no negative side to it. This one is just BAD.

    • Great additions, Robert. The mom did ask the kids for ideas. But, a major failure in the article is that the mom (as boss in this horrible analogy) pulled the “andon” not the kids. The kids were probably perfectly happy to fight :-)

      In a real workplace, the workers pull the andon cord, not the supervisor. This article got it backward.


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