Learning from Lean, Part 4

By Andrew Parris and Don Pope, reprinted from Christian Business ReviewCitations have been omitted.

Part four of a series.

Christian Parallels to Lean Wisdom

Given the Japanese manufacturing context of the development of Lean, a Christian leader may be reluctant to adopt Lean personally or in a Christian ministry, out of fear that Lean is only for manufacturing or is culturally or religiously inconsistent with Christian faith or practice. Instead, the increasing adoption of Lean in an ever-widening variety of industries and now also in all geographic regions (the Lean Global Network) demonstrate that Lean has discovered some wisdom for the workplace – fundamental principles and practices that apply (with some variation) to almost all organizations and contexts.

In this section, we explore some of the key Christian/biblical parallels to Lean principles that we expect many of our readers have already noticed. We note the topic of each principle and then cite the most relevant passages from the Bible that teach on the topic. In doing so, we demonstrate that Lean principles are, in the end, truths supported and affirmed by biblical teachings and, as a result, Christian leaders can fully endorse and practice.

1. We Exist to Provide Value to Our Customers

This first Lean principle is about purpose and providing value to others. When we examine biblical passages that address purpose and value, we find that the Apostle Paul often exhorts believers to find out and do what pleases God (II Corinthians 5:15, Ephesians 5:10 and 17, Colossians 1:9-10 and 3:17 & 23-24). The commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18 and Matthew 22:39) requires us to learn and do what is good for them – what is valuable to them. In the well-known Old Testament passage of Micah 6, the prophet asks what he should do to please God (v. 6-7), and then reflects, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (v. 8). These passages reflect the Christian idea that we (and our organizations, by extension) are to please God and to serve others, both of which are similar to the Lean idea of providing customer value.

We note earlier that Lean focuses only on the earthly customers (those who pay for and/or benefit from the organization’s products and services). At best, Lean might consider service to God to be a type of required, non-value-adding work (from the customer’s perspective). However, Christians are exhorted to do everything first and foremost for God (as our primary Customer).

2. Waste Is the Greatest Hindrance to Achieving Our Goals

This second Lean principle is about the things that hinder fruitfulness. Biblical passages on this topic teach that there are things (such as anxieties and cares of this world) and sin that prevent us from living a fruitful Christian life, and that we should strive to avoid and rid ourselves of them.

The author of Hebrews writes: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1a). In Matthew 13, Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed teaches the same message. The Apostle Paul exhorts believers many times to stop sinning, as in Ephesians 4:31, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” Even God gets rid of waste in us. In John 15, Jesus states, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (v. 1-2).

Interestingly, while Lean recognizes many different types of waste, it does not recognize sin as a waste or a source of waste. However, consider the arrogant, hurtful and violent things that people do, the harm that these things cause, and the enormous amounts of time and resources spent trying to prevent, restrain or recover from evil. One quickly sees that sin is possibly the greatest waste that any individual or organization has to deal with!

3. A Good Root Produces Good Fruit

This third Lean principle is about the source of good fruit. In the Old Testament (Ezekiel 36:26-28) and the New Testament, we find passages that teach that a bad or a good heart is the source of bad or good deeds.

In Matthew 12:34-35, Jesus affirms this principle and applies it to what people say and do, “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit….For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”

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