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Bruce Hamilton

Lean

Looking to the Future

Small changes for the better

Published: Tuesday, February 2, 2021 - 13:02

As we begin to take our approximately 4 1/2 billionth trip around the sun, I’m reflecting on the previous 525,600 minutes and looking ahead to the new decade. The decade (the ‘20s), by the way, began last month, not a year ago, a factoid noted in a short address by Hiroyuki Hirano in 1999 as the world approached the cyber-perils of Y2K.

After listening to Hirano explain multiple overwhelming challenges that manufacturing would face in the next century (Y2K was not one of them), I naively asked him what countermeasures he would recommend to manufacturers. “Oh,” he quipped, “I tell my friends, don’t go into manufacturing. It’s just too difficult.” 

What struck me most about this chance meeting with Hirano was not his flippant answer to my question, but rather the decades-long view that he was sharing with the rest us who were mostly focused on much shorter planning horizons. I was reminded of this tendency to think short-term in March last year, as planning cycles shrunk still further to months and even weeks. If anything, 2020 has been a year of tactical maneuvering for most of us; pivoting and adapting to unstable health and economic conditions. For those who have survived the year, there is reason for celebration and recognition of many herculean efforts to adapt to circumstances beyond our control.

On this account, however, I’m also reminded of Rheinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

I do, for example, anticipate the Earth will complete another revolution around the Sun in 2021, and I also accept the possibility—roughly one in 300,000—that the Earth will be struck by a catastrophic asteroid sometime in the next 365 days. I believe these events are beyond my control, and they don’t affect my sleep. But a pandemic, or global warming, or contention for scarce resources?

At a training I attended in 1989 with Ryuji Fukuda on strategic planning, he raised the question regarding things we can change. Citing a study on rail disasters in Japan, Fukuda made a compelling case that detailed study of rail disasters had, in fact, reduced many previously long-standing causes. Fukuda’s point was that long-term planning should not accept as fait accompli events that have previously been considered unavoidable. In fact, all of the countermeasures applied to reduce rail disasters were “small changes for the better.” Kaizen.

I humbly assert that the same can be said of the impending threats like pestilence, climate change, and scarcity. 

So why does it seem so difficult to address these problems? In the words of Taiichi Ohno, “No problem is a problem.” That we’ve spent the last year turning a blind eye to science regarding Covid-19 is not atypical; it’s a legacy dating back to Galileo. (He was excommunicated from the Church for suggesting the Earth is not the center of the universe.) Decades of science denial surrounding future livability on the planet is far far more damaging, just not as immediate. It seems that when consequences are not directly in front of us, we can’t see them. We’re quick to accept the technical solutions that science brings us, such as a vaccine, but slow to accept the personal sacrifices that come with adaptive change, like wearing a mask or using a recycling bin. In the words of W. Edwards Deming, “emphasis on short-term profits” (start the video at 3:30) is the root cause of this blindness. Organizations, including our government, may espouse long-term strategies, but behavior is based primarily on quarterly earnings. Profits over everything, “no matter what,” as Deming said.  

So, with total respect to Rheinhold Niebuhr, I’ll offer a 21st-century adaptation of his 1932 work as a wish for everyone in 2021 and beyond. Call it the Sanity Prayer: “God, grant me the sanity to accept the things I cannot change, the long-term thinking and courage to change the things I should, and wisdom to know the difference.

Happy new decade, everyone.

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About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change; and he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an on-going reflection on lean philosophy and practices with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.