To Method, Or Not To Method, That Is The Question

This post is a result of pondering on a couple of well know quotes in the Lean and Kanban communities, and the relationship, and potential paradox, between the two of them.

The first is from W. Edwards Deming:

By what method?

The second is from Taichi Ohno:

Do not codify method.

What’s going on here? Is ‘method’ something these two giants disagreed on? I don’t think so.

By What Method?

Deming would ask this in response to suggestions regarding improvement. His point was that “best effort” alone will not result in better performance. Simply continuing to do the same things, in the same ways, and just trying harder, or concentrating more, will not make any lasting difference. Instead, we need to acquire knowledge about the current situation, and use that knowledge to discover how change what we do and the way that we do it. The question “by what method?” is a call for intentional changes to the system as opposed to assuming the problem is with the people. Deming’s Red Bead Experiment was designed with this as one of the learning objectives. It includes no method for reducing the number of red beads other than extrinsic motivation, and it demonstrates that the outcomes of the exercise are only a result of the system.

Do Not Codify Method

Ohno is reported to have said this in response to people wanting to be given a prescriptive answer to a problem. His points was that once a method is codified, then people will blindly follow it regardless of suitability. Instead, he advocated for people thinking for themselves, in their own context, and coming up with their own solutions. While the only reference to Ohno actually using this phrase that I can find is from John Seddon and Vanguard (who ironically have codified their approach as the Vanguard Method!), I’m assuming its true for the purpose of this post. Please ket me know if you have a good reference confirming the quote (or otherwise).

Method or No Method?

What is interesting is that the Ohno quote is not “Do not have a method”, just not to codify it. In fact Ohno also said:

Where there is no standard there is no kaizen.

Thus there is no paradox. Both Deming and Ohno were suggesting that we should have a method to intentional improve. And that as we improve we should adapt and evolve that method rather than it becoming a static artefact.

This is why I like to put the emphasis on thinking in Kanban Thinking, and why I prefer to refer to it as a thinking model rather than a method. I’m not saying that all methods are inherently bad. XP, Scrum, SAFe,the Kanban Method and the Vanguard Method have all proved to be useful ideas in helping myself, my customers, and others to get better results. Its just that they all come with the risk of being taken as a prescriptive, and followed blindly. And I’m sure Kanban Thinking has the same risk. However, this risk could also be considered to be their kryptonite. In the same way that without kryptonite, Superman would not be powerful, without this risk, the methods would not be powerful. (Thanks to Seth Godin for this metaphor in The Icarus Deception)

So my takeaway is to have a method, but make it your own method. If you are going to use XP, Scrum, SAFe, ┬áthe Kanban Method ot te Vanguard Method, use them as pools of knowledge and ideas from which to pull and help you design your own method. Don’t just follow them blindly.


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3 comments on “To Method, Or Not To Method, That Is The Question

  1. Pingback: To Method, Or Not To Method, That Is The Question - The Agile Product Report

  2. Deming, Ohno, and Godin in one post – I’d say that’s awesome.

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  3. John Seddon has never properly cited or footnoted the source of Taiichi Ohno saying “do not codify.” For someone who positions himself as an academic, this is very sloppy.

    In the introduction to Ohno’s book “Toyota Production System,” editor/publisher Norman Bodek said something close to “do not codify”:

    “For many years, he would not allow anything to be recorded about it. He claimed it was because improvement is never-ending – and by writing it down, the process would become crystallized. But I think he also feared Americans would discover this powerful tool and use it against the Japanese.”

    See screenshot from book:

    Seddon always leaves out that last part about Ohno where he allegedly, per Norm Bodek, feared the Toyota trade secrets getting out to competitors.

    There is certainly a valid point that says we shouldn’t become rigid in our Lean methodology and that we shouldn’t stop improving. Some of the best healthcare organizations that are practicing Lean management methods are continually improving their Lean methods and their approach to Lean. Writing it down doesn’t guarantee a crystallization of the process or the method.

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