You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned

LS 001 | You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned


You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned


Welcome to the inaugural episode of the Lean Smarts podcast. I’m Daniel Crawford, the founder of Lean Smarts, and the purpose of these episodes is to provide bite-sized, easily digestible nuggets of information and advice on the subject of lean manufacturing. Of course lean is not limited to manufacturing but is a philosophy that applies to all of life and every industry. But “lean manufacturing” is how lean is most frequently recognized, and will often be the focus of this podcast.

Each episode, we’re going to focus on one specific area of the world of lean and get straight to the point of the topic that we’re going to be covering. We’re also going to feature and interview various lean maniacs from companies practicing lean in the hopes that they’ll be able to share insights on your own lean journey.

In this first episode I’m going to focus on one of the challenges companies face when deciding to become lean. This lesson is actually inspired by one of my favorite green friends: Yoda from Star Wars. In Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda is teaching Luke Skywalker the ways of the force, and Luke’s old way of thinking has convinced him that many things are impossible. At this point Yoda tells him, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”

That is the critical thing you must understand if you’re going to be successful on your lean journey. The challenge you will face is not learning new ideas and tools, but unlearning the old ones that stand in your way.

This is perhaps best exemplified by Paul Akers’ account of first discovering lean. If you don’t know who Paul is, check him out at He’s a lean maniac and wildly successful entrepreneur. But he wasn’t always lean. In his book 2 Second Lean he recounts the story of how he first discovered Lean. He had an extremely successful business and was searching for a software system to improve his inventory management. He brought in a consultant to check out the business and asked him what he thought the problem was. “Do you want to know the truth?” The consultant asked. “Of course!” Paul said. The consultant replied, “You don’t know what you are doing and you don’t know how to manufacture.”


But what happened next is extraordinary. And it’s why Paul deserves some respect. Rather than blowing off the consultant he found some humility and asked him, “Okay, what do I need to do?” “You need to find out about TPS—the Toyota Production System—also called lean manufacturing.”

Paul is the perfect example of what our green friend Yoda is trying to teach us. The challenge for so many leaders with Lean is not understanding it. Instead, it’s unlearning all the bad beliefs and behaviors that act as barriers on our lean journeys. Most people don’t have the humility to do it. It’s more pleasant to think we’re pretty hot stuff and that we know better than to have to unlearn something.

Perhaps the first lesson of Lean is that it changes you before it changes anyone else. If you think you can change your company and make it lean without changing yourself first, you’re misguided. You have to change—even if you’re the CEO of your company like Paul. And then you have to accept that this changing never stops.

You don’t just decide to start being lean. There has to be some subtraction first to make space for it. Otherwise it’ll never stick or be taken seriously. Here’s what I mean:

Successfully becoming lean is about creating a lean culture at your company, and to “create a culture” means to “displace” an old culture. Many companies and leaders fail to recognize this. They cannot see anything about themselves that stands in the way and that must be unlearned.

I’ve known many companies that are 30 years old and want to become lean. That’s fine and dandy. But to be more specific about the challenge they face, what many of these companies fail to realize is that they already have a culture at the company that has been reinforced day in and day out for 30 years. That doesn’t change overnight when the CEO decides, “I want to become lean.” Or takes time. And more important than that, it takes honesty and humility.

If you cannot see what has to change about you or your company, you don’t stand a chance at improving it. You can’t fix a problem you deny or can’t see.

And I’m not talking about problems with processes or products. I’m talking about the beliefs and behaviors that you carry on the inside of you and everywhere you go.

Most attempts to become lean fail. It’s just a matter of fact. The odds are against you. Only the most humble or most desperate of companies and leaders truly make it. The others may see some improvements—sure—but they fail to fundamentally change who they are: what they they think, feel, and do.

And there can be many reasons for why that happens. But they generally fall into this category of failing to unlearn old mistakes and habits. It’s easy to recognize that a process is bad. But it’s harder to accept that that bad process is the product of a management system that is 30 years in the making, and that actually you as a leader are responsible for the bad process in front of you. You see the challenge isn’t changing the process: it’s changing ourselves! Until we change ourselves, we haven’t changed the management system, and we’re only going to get more of the same rubbish that motivated us to become lean in the first place.

Leadership has to change. Management had to change. And not only in what they do, but in what they believe about work and the human race. I’m serious.

There’s a lot of stuff you can do with Lean, but at Lean Smarts we believe in massive employee engagement, keeping it simple, and creating culture. We actually believe that’s the dream that good leaders carry in their hearts, and Lean Smarts exists to help leaders get there. And I’m just telling you, if you want to get there, there’s some stuff you’re going to have to unlearn.

In Japanese, the word for this is hansei. I’ll read a definition to you straight from Wikipedia: “hansei means to acknowledge one’s own mistake and to pledge improvement.” This comes in the form of deep deep reflection, personal responsibility, and basically borderlines remorse in Japanese culture.

The best equivalent in the English language is a word I’ll borrow from church culture, which is to repent. Repentance doesn’t mean to feel bad about yourself. It actually means to change how you think. As lean leaders, we have to get to a place through humility in which we value the truth so much that we change how we think and cut off bad behaviors and bad beliefs. This is how we repent of old habits and mistakes and make way for new habits and successes.

The application of this is unique to every individual. But to give you an idea of the kinds of changes I’m talking about I’ll give you a few examples.

If you’re going to create a lean culture with massive employee participation and results, you’ve got to believe that everyone’s participation actually matters and repent of the belief that you can do this yourself or through a handful of high performing people. You’ve got to believe everyone’s contribution actually matters, no matter how small it is. And you’ve got to believe that the small contributions of every employee are more important and valuable than the big improvements of a select few. You’ve also got to believe that Lean is fundamentally about growing people and not about growing money or cost reductions. You’ve got to believe that all the results of Lean—savings, profits, quality, customer satisfaction, inventory control, and everything else—are the byproducts of growing your people and building a lean culture. They are not the primary product, but the byproduct of having the correct values and living them out consistently.

These are all very basic and simple examples. But these beliefs are fundamental and central to lean. They go deep, and great leaders take them deeply to heart.

It’s easy to say and think that we believe these things. But the reality is that every one of us falls short of these ideals in some way or another. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to be capable of seeing your mistakes—even those that are 30 years in the making—and unlearn the things you have learned, making way for lean beliefs and behaviors.

Humility is a hallmark characteristic of lean leaders. You cannot get far without it.