Things from your life

Words & resources by Brian Kerr in Tacoma, Washington 98406

The glass

Now here’s a little parable, or joke:

The optimist says that the glass is half-full.
The pessimist says that the glass is half-empty.
The lean consultant recommends finding a smaller glass.

This parable, or joke, is a pocket-sized exemplar of what’s good — and what’s insufficient — about lean thinking.

What’s good

There’s an acknowledgement of contingency. People have their own beliefs, perspectives, and intuitions. These can be respected without reference to validity or necessity.

It’s a response to the situation as encountered. No part of this story is about finding individual culpability or placing blame. Neither is there any discussion about how things “should” be, or even how much water is “enough”. (Although how much water people want is a different matter entirely.)

It’s about making a discrete, intentional change. You know, given an existing situation that isn’t to everybody’s satisfaction, even an arbitrary change might wind up making things better.

What’s insufficient

The proposed resolution isn’t necessarily a useful improvement all by itself. It could be meaningless tidying up, and could in fact be valuable; either way it’s disconnected from the larger environment and intents shared by both the optimist and pessimist. The basic principles that were bundled up into lean (a) have to do with correlating the work everybody is doing with the actual purpose of the organization they work in and (b) very rarely come up in “lean work” or “lean projects”.

There’s a tremendous amount of fatigue out there related to lean thinking and lean transformations. We’ve all seen this kind of thing before: feel-good rearranging of deck chairs; a dollop of anal retentiveness over box lunches and cheerful whiteboards.

Unfortunately, that’s skepticism that lean has earned over the decades, and you have to respect people who feel that way.

Lean and related jargon are terms that have reached peak fluff. (Example: last week a trainer for a proprietary, nightmarishly over-complicated content management system told me that the product in question was lean because “you can administer it from a web browser and not a desktop application and it has great ROI.” That is a direct quote.) All this damage is the reason I try to talk around the term “lean”, and prefer instead to focus on the underlying practices and motivations — which, ironically, are usually as novel and exciting to people as lean itself is overtired and stale.

No capital L

What is lean, anyways? Is it a system, a tool, or a cult? As always, depends on who’s buying, and who’s selling. Here’s my advice:

If you want to learn about lean, read only books from before 01980, with one exception: W. Edwards Deming’s Out of the Crisis. This was published in 01982 but is in fact a retrospective of his decades of work. If you do read the book, count how many times he uses the word “lean”, and then use it about as often as he does.

Also, you might want to get yourself a smaller glass.

On only living once

We live, and live again. We live many lives each day. Dying is what we do just the once, and that’s not so much fun to tweet about.

Who has time to live once? That sounds like it’d go on for years. Nobody can deal with all that in this world of months, weeks, and days, each more hardassed and unceasing than the last.

The English majors among us know that all you have to do to live another life is to pick up a book or watch a movie or play a video game; that we’re consciousness-stricken animals who can’t help but pluck narrative out of the ether — the old thing about slowing down a vampire, just dump out a sack of rice whereupon its rampage is overridden by a sudden need to count the grains? That’s us. Just give us a TV show about a hardened criminal / family man throwing pizza onto a roof and bam we’re transported.

I live in a nice little neighborhood. Houses small and old but well-kept. The 01920s were the key, here. Before, it was sort of where the mill pond used to be, up the road from the streetcar. Afterwards: a part of a neighborhood, part of a city. Today, in 02014 —

Let’s talk for a moment about what it means to live, however many times, in 02014. This is one year before RoboCop, based on every single cultural input I received as an impressionable child, is scheduled to throw countless 99%ers into toxic goo “back home”. 02014 is the future. We made it. Only five short years remain to turn Los Angeles into an interminable, undifferentiated nightscape (check), kill all the animals (we’re working diligently, here), and build some replicants (instead, we have fast-follower telephones designed by advertising companies and manufactured by shipbuilding conglomerates [this is actually kind of amazing, in a near-future dystopian kind of way]). The very best science fiction novel, Stand on Zanzibar, is set in 02010. Anyways:

Today, in 02014, I have neighbors who know as an incontrovertible fact that they will live again after death. They literally have that old-time religion. It’s a country where a full third of adult humans believe that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time”. All this to say, there are a lot of perspectives on the question of how many times a person lives, and many of them are pretty dumb.

To be fair, humans and other living things are no great shakes. We haven’t been here long, and we probably won’t stay long either. We showed up late to the dance, and we’ll be gone before the music stops, give or take six thousand years.

We, as a species, only live once.

We, as individuals, live as many lives as we can stand.

#yolo, #indeed.

Read Pew Research’s Public’s Views on Human Evolution in order to start wondering which third of your neighbors not to let your child speak with.

In new language

Egypt in the Twelfth Dynasty. It’s the 19th century BCE and a touch on the warm side. Khekheperre-Sonbu wrote:

Would, that I had words that are unknown, utterances and sayings in new language, that hath not yet passed away, and without that which hath been said repeatedly — not an utterance that hath grown stale, what the ancestors have already said.

I can’t think of anything to add to that.

As told in Will Durant’s Our Oriental Heritage.

What have you been reading?

We’ve been reading the same things we’ve always been reading. It’s been a frighteningly long time since we’ve read a new book. But this last handful of seasons has made all the old books new again. By phonelight, in stolen jags of time, on endless train and bus rides along the same broad northerly scar, we’ve been reading. We’ve been reading Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:

The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak. Only other human beings can do that. The realization that the world does not tell us what language games to play should not, however, lead us to say that a decision about which to play is arbitrary, nor to say that it is the expression of something deep within us.

We’ve been reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy:

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning. The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part.

We’ve been reading the various adventures of Sherlock Holmes:

—“It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”
—“You horrify me!”
—“But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”

We’ve been reading The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger:

We were never asked if we wanted to exist, and we will never be asked whether we want to die or whether we are ready to do so. In particular, we were never asked if we wanted to live with this combination of genes and this type of body. Finally, we were certainly never asked if we wanted to live with this kind of a brain including this specific type of conscious experience. It should be high time for rebellion. But everything we know points to a conclusion that is simple but hard to come to terms with: Evolution simply happened — foresightless, by chance, without goal. There is nobody to despise or rebel against — not even ourselves. And this is not some bizarre form of neurophilosophical nihilism but rather a point of intellectual honesty and great spiritual depth.

We’ve been reading Clock of the Long Now by Stewart Brand:

Nobody can save the world, but any of us can help set in motion a self-saving world — if we are willing to engage the processes of centuries, because that is where the real power is.

Of course we’ve read Jerry Weinberg’s Secrets of Consulting:

Your ideal form of influence is first to help people see their world more clearly, and then to let them decide what to do next. Your methods of working are always open for display and discussion with your clients. Your primary tool is merely being the person you are, so your most powerful method of helping other people is to help yourself.

When our train arrives and the phone rings and the baby cries, we yield to the day and its concerns. But if you see the gleam in our eye or the tiny little spring in our step, it’s because we’ve been reading.

Against balance

Alongside the gray road, you will encounter people who speak of work-life balance. You have a hard time taking that topic seriously.

The idea of work-life balance reminds you of people who put milk in their coffee. If the coffee isn’t good, just drink better coffee.

After a few years on the gray road, you’ve learned a few things. Not because you’re so smart, but through blistering repetition.

You’ve learned that most people haven’t had good coffee. They think that’s what coffee is. (You used to think that yourself.) That kind of coffee, of course, you balance out with milk, soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, hemp milk, cream, and sugar.

And work like that, work so bad that people start talking about work-life balance and with standing meetings where everybody sits for half an hour and organizational culture and institutional values and birthday parties?

Work like that, you balance with life.

Onwards, upwards, & older