Learning Jazz (and Lean?): Imitate, Integrate, Innovate


Although I don't get to play much anymore, I used to be a pretty serious drummer (I almost said “musician,” but that invites jokes that drummers aren't really musicians). I was more of a percussionist — playing everything from timpani in the orchestra to marching band drums and the drum set in jazz bands.

I always loved playing and came to appreciate different styles of music. In most forms of music, the sheet music (the standardized work) is very highly specified. You play what's on the page, every single note is given to you. In jazz, however, the sheet music is more of a structure, in which different members of the group are allowed to play solos of their own creation…

The jazz soloist isn't allowed to just play whatever… there are certain boundaries and frameworks, such as the key and the chord progressions.  It's interesting to read about how jazz musicians learn how to solo. It wasn't something I thought too much about as I was learning, but the following framework seems to make sense… and I think there are parallels to learning how to practice Lean methods and Lean thinking.

There's a progression of three words that are often attributed to different famous jazz musicians… but as described in blogs like this one, the progression in learning how to solo is:

  1. Imitate
  2. Integrate (sometimes cited as “assimilation,” but I like alliteration)
  3. Innovate

From the jazz musician and teacher, Clark Terry, on step 1:

Imitation is an integral first step in learning to improvise, but sadly, it's often overlooked by beginners because scales and theory are immediately thrown in their faces. While you do need to have a solid understanding of music theory, the truth is that scales and chords, no matter how much you memorize them or run them up and down, aren't going to magically turn into great stylistic improvisations full of long lines and interesting harmonies. To do that you need a model.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming taught that data without theory are meaningless. I guess you could say the same about jazz improvisation or the use of Lean methods. We need theory, not just tools and methods. But, do you need to first practice methods, following the example of models (like Toyota or ThedaCare) to start your learning rather than expecting that the theory instantly becomes obvious

I'd agree that just copying a method, like 5S, isn't alone going to lead you to Lean enlightenment, but maybe it's a helpful first step? When you copy and practice a method, under the guidance of a teacher, the theory can become more apparent and understandable as you go. The key, again, is having a TEACHER, whether it's jazz or Lean. Many people who are copying Lean tools don't have a good teacher or mentor to help them eventually understand the theory.

Back to jazz:

By imitating the players you love, you'll begin to understand the music on a deeper level and begin to see a personal sound develop in your own approach to improvisation. Questions that can't be answered by music theory or etude books, like how to play longer lines or how to articulate and swing, will reveal themselves as you start to imitate the masters.

Does this apply to Lean?

In the second step of integration, back to Terry:

Assimilation  means ingraining these stylistic nuances, harmonic devices, and lines that you've transcribed into your musical conception. Not just mentally understanding them on the surface level, but truly connecting them to your ear and body. This is where the hours of dedication and work come in.

A jazz student can learn from the recordings or live performances of many different musical greats. The process for practicing and working on integrating or assimilating different models somewhat reminds me of the Mike Rother “Toyota Kata” idea of practicing different basic forms as a way of gaining competency.

On to the third step, innovation:

Creating a fresh and personal approach to the music. Many young musicians want to skip to this step as soon as they start learning how to improvise…  Innovation  is the direct result of hours upon hours of imitation and assimilation. Take a look at the great innovators that this music has already seen. Each one spent countless hours studying harmony, solos, form, tunes, etc. in order to realize their own personal concept.

How many organizations hear about the Toyota Production System and want to leap immediately to having a Business System or Production System of their own? Do you have to first imitate and assimilate the methods and thinking of others before you can create your own unique system that best meets the needs of your industry, organization, and customers?

In teaching that “Lean is more than just tools,” are some of us too hard on those who are just getting started if they are learning by copying the tools of others?

I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this jazz model – whether you are a musician (or former musician) or not. I'm intrigued by this model of Jazz learning… I'm not 100% convinced it applies to other disciplines, so that's why I'm blogging about it… what do you think?

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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. This is an interesting concept, and it should prompt some lively discussion. For me, there’s a difference between imitating and copying. Imitating is a less formal way of using others’ experiences, while copying is more of a word-for-word method (that, in my experience, frequently fails). I think imitating and adjusting starts to take us to the effective adoption of the ideas and philosophy of Lean, which would then lead into the integration and innovation steps.

    • Great point, Dean. With jazz, I know many solos are transcribed into sheet music… so a student can literally play the notes as they are heard in a recording. There’s the written notes, but also the style and interpretation of the solo… that can’t be put down on paper, but it can come partly from imitating a recording. Interesting to think about that distinction between imitating and copying in a Lean context… copying often gets used in the phrase “copying blindly” — and that’s not a good thing. It’s the experience of imitating that allows one to practice and learn… sort of the idea that you can act your way to a better way of thinking? You can’t just listen to the jazz masters, you have to try playing on your own…

      • I think imitation is about trying to understand, while copying is simply trying to recreate. How it applies to lean is that when someone copies 5S, for instance, they think that once it looks the same that they are done; once they have learned to play the jazz piece, they are now playing jazz. Imitation recognizes that once you have followed the 5S model, that now you better understand why it exists as it does, but you’re not Toyota; that once you imitate the single jazz piece that you now know a little bit more about jazz, but you’re not Miles Davis.

        I also think it’s about following standards toward improvement. Imitating is practicing to a standard. I think the natural inclination is to jump into improvising before understanding the standards, and what you get instead of jazz (or lean) is just noise.

        • Great comment, Steve. I love the analogy of music versus noise.

          I’ll extend your analogy (or maybe this is what you’re saying)… a student might be able to play one song that copies Miles Davis solos… it might sound similar, but that doesn’t mean the student can solo over a different tune or with a different band that plays the tune a bit differently. The student might robotically copy the sound, but might not really understand why it’s being played that way.

  2. I think the jazz model absolutely applies. I don’t think it is so much that we are too hard on those who, getting started, learn by copying the tools. It’s more a question of how long they stay stuck on the tools, sometimes for decades. Their practice is mindless vs. deliberate. See here:


    We wrote a paper last year also exploring the many similarities between music and Lean, titled “Music as a Framework to Better Understand Lean Leadership.” Its focus is to explain why most senior managers have great difficulty comprehending and correctly practicing Lean leadership. You can find it here http://www.bobemiliani.com/papers/emiliani_lean_music.pdf

    Learn more about the many similarities between music and Lean management here

  3. I think the jazz model is applicable to lean.

    It is human nature to innovate to make our lives easier. In every large established organization there are individuals who have practiced lean even with no formal lean program is in place. I think the first step in imitation is to ask every employee in the organization for a list of past improvements. You will be surprised by the feedback. This simple question will identify your teachers.

    The assimilation step involves posting all prior improvements online and on bulletin boards. The best way to learn is by example. The stories of achievement posted on the bulletin boards illustrate the problem solving process. Additionally these stories are specific to the organization.

    “You invent because something bothers you.” Joseph Rabinow 200 US patents. The stories of achievements posted on the bulletin board all start with an irritation (opportunity for improvement). The innovation step is similar to what you are doing here. Ask every employee, “What work task irritates you?” Appropriate responses become blog entries. Comments and suggestions are collected from all employees. Your team is as large as the organization. The effectiveness of the solution is related to the number of brains used in the process.

    Does Kainexus use these steps?

    • Yes, we try to live by those principles at KaiNexus – in how we run the company and the way our software enables the Kaizen improvement process. Sharing ideas (even on a bulletin board) helps create more improvement. I think learning from the improvements can be both imitation and integration…

      You are absolutely spot on that there is likely a lot of improvement happening in most organizations… even if it’s underground.

  4. Often some of the highest respect is given to jazz players for their dedication, diligence, and engagement in their art. It may be because the players deeply respect the opportunity to play the music. And there are magical times when we are lucky/honored to witness an interwoven flow where one cannot feel/hear as one instrument stops and another slides in seamlessly. Frictionless pull? Times like that don’t need an andon cord.

    • It’s funny when people who don’t know jazz think “oh, that’s easy, they just play whatever they want.” Arguably, the skill required to improv and solo well takes more planning and dedication over time than a rock band who plays the same songs the same way each time. It looks and sounds easy, in jazz, because of how much time they put into it.

  5. I had a jazz teacher who was teaching improvization and your article reminded me of him. He taught strings of 4 and six note combinations and just called them all cliches. Nobody wanted to learn them.

  6. All the lab techs told lab management the pH meter was not giving accurate results. Lab management response was, “It is the responsibility each lab tech to calibrate the pH meter before use.” The result was some lab techs were adding 50% extra citric acid to one of the liquid margarines to get the pH in spec. Other lab techs were making control samples in the lab to prove extra citric acid was not needed.

    Only one customer required a pH test on their product. Many liquid margarines used citric acid to lower the pH to impeded bacterial growth. Since these other margarines were not tested, extra citric acid was never added.

    Finally, a temporary lab tech called the pH meter manufacturer and asked for help. The probe should be washed with soap and water after every use. After this procedure was implemented by lab techs, the pH meter worked flawlessly. No extra acid was ever needed.

    Who did a good job in this situation? The best job was done by the temp. Kudos could also be given to lab techs that used a control sample. Lab management was missing in action.

    Although some lean improvements may be done underground, the vast majority of improvements made in companies without an official lean program are known to management. These improvements are ignored because they make management look bad. This is a very common occurrence.

    The reason to ask for past achievements is to find the true leaders. You never know who the true leader is; it might be the temp.

    Of course, lab management wanted everyone to keep quiet on what happened that may have had dire consequences for one of their customers. The company had several plants so this problem may happen again.

    Kainexus will identify kaizen leaders. Asking for past achievements will facilitate the process.

    • Great story, Kevin. That’s a sad reality that many managers want to keep kaizen examples hidden because it makes them “look bad.” It’s sad that so many leaders are “missing in action” as you describe it.

      KaiNexus *does* have a feature for inputting previous kaizen ideas that have been implemented, if somebody is transitioning from, say, a bulletin board system or an excel spreadsheet.

  7. The QA manager was finally terminated. The HR manager realized things improved when the QA supervisor quit. The lab tech who started using controls quit. The lab tech who solve the problem with the pH meter is job hunting.

    McClelland’s Theory of Needs contends each individual is motivated by a combination of three needs: achievement, power and affiliation.

    Need for achievement. People high in this need have an intense desire to succeed in meeting challenging goals. They want to get the job done quickly and accurately. These people may falter when a challenge is not available. (The two high performing lab techs.)
    Need for power. The need to control the actions and behaviors of others. (QA manager and supervisor.)
    Need for affiliation. Those high in this need have an elevated desire to be liked and accepted. They want to work with their friends.

    In a sweatshop, managers with a high power need are required. In a knowledge economy, managers must have a high achievement need. When you ask for past achievements, you are identifying people with a high achievement need. These are future leaders.

    Since a leader’s job to to facilitate achievement, another group may have the edge for a promotion. Ask employees who have old or new achievements, “Who was helpful?” If certain names are consistently submitted, promote these people.

    Mark, thanks for the opportunity to participate in your blog.

  8. Great article Mark.
    I saw a great example of this recently on a BBC Horizon documentary on mistake proofing in hospitals. They interviewed the airline pilot who landed the airplane on the Hudson there a few years back. He said the key to him being able to avoid disaster and land the plane with no loss of life was taking the standards that had been built up in the airline industry over decades (i.e. what to do in an emergency) and then improvising (i.e. landing in the river).


    • Great example. I’ve heard Capt. Sully talk about how there was no checklist for “how to land your plane on a river after both engines have been taken out by bird strikes.”

      They DID have checklists for determining the best place to land, how to try to restart the engines, etc.

      The pilot skill was figuring out WHICH checklists to use in the right combination. A great example of how “standardized work” doesn’t mean checking one’s brain at the door.


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