One of the properties (Rule 1) of a system designed on the principles of lean thinking. This first, critical, stage defines what you want to achieve: resist the temptation to add numerous other objectives, since this will only destroy the focus and rule out the possibility of discovering a common purpose. But you don’t need to resist the temptation to adopt an aim which is beyond what you think you can achieve—for among the resources available to you is pull, and its speciality is discovering solutions.

But of course it isn’t as simple as that, for two reasons. First, overall aims consist of many specific means towards that end, the first of which do indeed need to be recognised as realistic and achievable—and within a reasonably short time.

Secondly, there is the question of who decides what the Intention is to be. Four alternative sources come to mind:

1. It comes with the job. The original application of lean thinking, in car production, does not leave it to the production team to decide on their own Intention. The workers are there not just to apply their minds, but to apply their minds to the building of cars. They might decide that the best thing to do on a sunny day like this is to go out and play cricket, but the management might have a different plan.

2. Here the Intention is bottom-up; it comes from the community itself—perhaps to hold a carnival, to start a local school, or to establish a long-term commons project such as installing and maintaining an irrigation system.

3. It is imposed by an authoritarian regime whose decisions, extending beyond the Intention itself, include every detail of what is to be done, and how (Unlean).

4. This is ‘gap-lean’—where, for instance, an authoritarian regime leaves some gaps in its control in which lean can flourish. The ingenuity of prisoners-of-war in circumstances which are as controlling as the authorities can make them is, perhaps, a case of gap-lean—with room for super-lean responses, given the chance, thanks to the efforts of the regime to rule out any possibility of lean at all. Such a regime may leave little choice to its victims other than to focus their minds on the task with all the life-saving ingenuity they can find, during the long wait for their chance to rebel.

The case for chopping the Intention down to size

The business analyst Robert Schaffer suggests four criteria for intentions that succeed:

Urgency: Break it down into urgent and compelling objectives, which everybody can recognise as vital and necessary now.

Realism: Get results soon. People should be able to look forward to a first success in a matter of weeks.

Clarity: The objectives must be defined in specific terms: quantities, dates, quality tolerances.

Commitment: The people involved should have the commitment, authority and resources to get there.

He calls this the “Breakthrough Strategy”, and uses the example of the Bonaventure Express [freight] Terminal of the Canadian National Railway, which had a history of terrible quality, late deliveries and rising costs—and had suffered a stream of company doctors, each with their own doomed prescriptions.

Schaffer proposed that they should concentrate on getting just one train—the 242—to carry a higher proportion of the load it was actually scheduled to carry: a mere 60% would do for a start. Hitting that modest aim was the first experience of success after years of demoralisation, and it was followed by the recovery of the company and its managers—“no longer the passive losers whom everyone was trying to improve”.I57

As the entry on the Commons shows, the only enduring way of making or sustaining a large-scale commons in our own time is the long route of bottom-up decision, building the motivation of loyalty layer-by-layer from foundations of personal commitment. And yet—we should not be so seduced by our admiration of this obviously-right way of doing it that we fail to notice that other models have also had their impressive records. Autocratic companies have had their moments. The blood-strewn hydraulic tyrannies described in Unlean were successful for thousands of years: hyperprojects such as building the Great Wall of China or the Pyramid of Cheops were awesome exercises in effective management. Organic farming invented itself in the gaps unintentionally left in the state-supported, agri-industrial establishment.

So, intention of various kinds and from diverse sources can still work, in the sense of providing a focused frame of reference. Does it therefore really matter what the source is? Well, it does, for several reasons, no doubt, but just one will do: Intentions of type 1, 3 and 4 have the problem that they crash. Type 1 depends critically on senior management deciding on the Intention, and recent problems in celebrated lean companies have suggested that it is subject to cycles of decadence and revolution. Type 3 also leads to decadence, followed by revolution and maybe civil war, followed by recovery for a time of stability, followed by another revolution. The crash in the case of type 4 differs in that it may be the context that crashes, leaving the long-sustained intention and its slow-motion revolution the winner. But, in whatever form, the moment of kaikaku arrives.I58

As for Type 2—the truly bottom-up intention—is this cycle/revolution-free? Well, it may be, so long as the conditions for its stability are maintained—and they may well be self-stabilising (Commons, Wheel of Life).

Intention—rule 1 of lean thinking—needs all the other rules really, to be fully understood. Yet an intriguing aspect of lean is that, in a sense, each of the five rules—intention, lean means, flow, pull and feedback—contains the whole story. If you think hard enough about any one of them it takes you into an understanding of all the others. Intention certainly does that. Reach for a long attention span and reflect on it. That’s lean thinking.


Related entries:

Humility, Harmonic Order.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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