Before we attempt to understand Lean and define it we need to make an attempt to understand “Perfection” or the word “perfect” in its totality.
The form of the word long fluctuated in various languages. The English language had the alternates, “perfection” and the Biblical “perfectness.”
The word “perfection” derives from the Latin “perfectio”, and “perfect” — from “perfectus.” These expressions in turn come from “perficio” — “to finish”, “to bring to an end.” “Perfectio(n)” thus literally means “a finishing”, and “perfect(us)” — “finished”, much as in grammatical parlance (“perfect”).
Many modern languages have adopted their terms for the concept of “perfection” from the Latin: the French “parfait” and “perfection”; the Italian “perfetto” and “perfezione”; the Spanish “perfecto” and “perfección”; the English “perfect” and “perfection”.
The oldest definition of “perfection”, fairly precise and distinguishing the shades of the concept, goes back to Aristotle. In the book “Delta of the Metaphysics”, he distinguishes three meanings of the term, or rather three shades of one meaning, but in any case three different concepts. That is perfect:
1. Which is complete — which contains all the requisite parts;
2. Which is so good that nothing of the kind could be better;
3. Which has attained its purpose.
To him “perfect” meant “complete” (“nothing to add or subtract”).
Now, lets apply the same logic to a system, any system be it : Management, hospitals, or education system. All systems are driven by an input, a process and an output, and the process is in turn driven by a structure. To make the system perfect by the definition given above, we need to examine the entire process, breaking it down to meaningful steps and questioning each step.
Let’s understand the same by an analogy. Let’s consider you’ve been given the choice to dine outside and in doing so you have been given two layouts to decide from. The first layout has a fine dining setup with the most elaborate decor — filled with aroma candles and antique candelabras. The carpet is Persian and the bone china the most exquisite variety. Every inch represents richness and class. The table has been laid to perfection with silverware. The food choice is a seven course meal staring with a variety of starters and ending with your choice of desserts.
Now, let’s think of the second setup : To start with it is rather minimalist with a small mat on the floor and earthenware plates there is only one vessel in which the food is kept. The food is simple too, a premixed yellow-lentil and rice or porridge if you will.
Do think which one would you choose from?
I’m sure most of you would love to go with the first option. However, let’s go a little further and put a condition, I will take away one ingredient from the first setup. Hope you would be OK. It is already very lavish if I may say so. As there is no room for elements to be taken away from the second setup. If I remove some pieces of cutlery from the first system, that perhaps would not bother you much as you can still make do with the other things and moving away a spoon or two would not be a deterrent as such.
If I were to tell you that I remove food from the first setup which is the ‘key element’ of the system would it still be alluring to your empty belly? Would you in this case rush to choose the second system which though minimalist has the ‘key element’: Food. The second system then becomes the ‘perfect system’ and it fits the definition :
1. Which is complete — which contains all the requisite parts; (It has food)
2. Which is so good that nothing of the kind could be better; (Absence of any element would make it rather impossible to call it a system)
3. Which has attained its purpose. (The purpose of feeding you)
Thus, a systems perfectness does not lie in the number of steps it has but whether or not the system has been able to perform its ‘core function’ without the further need to add or subtract a step from it.
Lean also tries to attain the same ‘perfection’ through its implementation and by attempting in doing so, it transcends from being just a ‘tool’ or a ‘methodology’ which can only save money and feed the bottom line to a ‘philosophy’ which can be used to drive every single process. I would quote Taiichi Ohno San (I refer to him as San so as to show the respect I have for him) on what he says in his book about Lean “You can’t go part way with lean — you have to go all the way.”
Originally published at medium.com