Introduction, by David Fleming

I never volunteer for anything. It only gets me into trouble.

So when we were asked to volunteer for parts in a game to illustrate the virtues of what is known as lean thinking, I stood at the back, and stared at the floor. This was especially necessary because the other people on the course were senior management in industries which I had read about from time to time, but who lived on a different planet from the one I mooch about in: aerospace, automotive, logistics, reinsurance. One of them made tanks. I concentrated on not catching anyone’s eye.

What I didn’t realise was that the last person to volunteer—or anyone foolhardy enough not to volunteer at all—was punished by being nominated for the job that nobody wanted.

“Okay, you’re the CEO.”

“?”

“Yes, you.”

“?”

“Chief Executive Officer.”

“?”

“The Boss.”

“No, really, I’m not that ambitious.”

“You’re the Boss. Now, let’s get a move on.”

Well, they put a lot of thought and effort into designing the games they play in business schools. And here is what they had us doing. They wanted us to assemble little plastic coloured bricks together in a very particular way. If you got it roughly right, that wouldn’t do. If you got it almost exactly right, that meant you had built an aeroplane that would stall on take-off. It had to be exact—and agreed to be exact by the incorruptible referee, the lady who was making this distressing event happen.

Most of the twenty-four people on the course had sensibly volunteered to be production workers. The remaining one third were management. The production workers were divided into four groups, sat down at four tables, and required to put the bricks together in subassemblies, each one an exact replica of the model which had been placed in front of them on their table. Each subassembly then had to be taken to the next table to have some more bits added to it. The object was completed by the fourth group and handed to the referee for inspection. The task of the managers was to make sure the workers got it right. My task was to make sure the managers got it right.

A lot of things happened at once. Putting those little bricks together was tricky. At each table, piles of duff subassemblies collected. Sometimes a completed object did make it to the end of the line, only to be rejected. Disputes broke out between the tables. There was a lot of shouting. My team of managers were worked off their feet. I realised it is hard work being a manager. The workers blamed the management. The management blamed me. I tried to remember how to look calm and confident. If anyone, having lost their way to the university’s art department, had looked in on the scene, they would reasonably have been impressed by the sheer scale of activity. Everyone was furiously busy checking, carrying, informing, suggesting, inspecting, disagreeing. This, clearly, was a group of highly-motivated people. If people can work with this level of enthusiasm on the task of assembling little plastic bricks, what chance has the competition? The world is beaten.

The problem was that not one single assembly was put together correctly. The sound and fury signified nothing. It began to become clear, even to me, that there must surely be a better way of doing it.

After some trial and error, the tables were rearranged; they were pushed against each other in a row. The group at each table now worked to a rule: only one subassembly to be made at a time, then to be placed in reach of the group at the next table, waiting to be picked up. When the next group found that there was something wrong with it, the two groups would get together and work out the problem. There was good reason, now, to apply their minds. Neither table would even attempt to make another assembly until the problem with the first one had been cracked, and only one subassembly could now be in play at the same time. Problems were revealed quickly; people talked to each other. The shouting stopped.

And then the talking, too, got quieter. The production workers had worked out how to get it right, every time. Something new began to come from the tables: a sense of quiet satisfaction.

And the management? Quite suddenly, I remembered my pivotal role as CEO, and looked round to see what the other members of my management team were doing. It can be easily summarised: we were standing in a straight line, with our arms folded. We were observing the scene, and trying to make ourselves believe that we were in some way responsible for this smoothly-running model of diligence, accuracy and intelligence.

But then we realised: we were out of work. I would have been out of work anyway, so for me it was a lucky reprieve; I could leave with relief and honour. But for the others in my team it was a moment of truth: if you declutter things so that the problems become visible, and you set things up so that people talk to each other and start to believe they can work things out for themselves, you are calling on information-processing power which has a tendency to be overlooked. It is there in the space right above the nose. You need some reasonably well-defined intention in the first place, but within that frame of reference there is freedom to invent. It is called “lean thinking”.1

The lean thinking described in this book should not be taken as a comprehensive guide to how to run a railway or to make tanks. Rather, it is about how to recruit the intelligence and purpose of the people in the extraordinary task of inventing a future. And here is why we need to do so.

 

The story

When long-established systems break down, they often do so in many different ways at the same time. Our economy and society depend on a lot of things working right, all the time: cheap and reliable flows of energy, a stable climate, fertile soils, abundant fresh water, productive oceans, an intact, diverse ecology, high levels of employment and a cohesive culture. These are all in trouble.

How should we respond to this? Well, with care, application and references, no doubt, and we shall come to that, but for now: four kinds of response are possible—that is, four paths which lead off in their different directions, each of which counts as the most enticing and delightful one, depending on who is looking at them:

Growth. Market economies, like bicycles, are only stable when they are moving forward—and that, for an economy, means growth. Growth keeps unemployment down and governments solvent. These are extremely good reasons to keep it going: how could any responsible government and business establishment contemplate anything else? The snag is that growth destroys the foundations on which it relies. This is the double-bind of growth: we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

Continuity. Could we not reform the economy—to protect those foundations from further damage or, better still, repair them? For instance, why not work out how to achieve the double delight of growth and repair? The snag here is that there is no sign whatsoever of that being possible. Alternatively, we might try continuing while calling a halt to growth itself. But there are problems with that, too. It would do nothing to reduce the accumulated damage, which is already more than the Earth can bear. And the lack of growth would break the economy.

Descent. This is a steep winding-down of the size of the industrial economy. It strips away its burdens and complications, nurses the human ecology back to health, builds local competence and discovers a sense of place. It thinks afresh about how to get out of the aforementioned double-bind. The descent itself is inevitable, as is the breakage that follows, and yet, this is managed descent, in contrast with descent that forces itself on an economy blindly straining for growth. The shock is as gentle and as survivable as foresight can make it.

Collapse. This future sees events moving out of our grasp.

Lean Logic is about Descent. It is the path that has both reality and hope.

The ways in which the descent could develop are so varied that there is a risk of being paralysed by the uncertainty, so Lean Logic focuses on a particular aspect of it—an aspect that matters intensely to all of us. As the industrial economy descends, unemployment will rise, and there will come a point when government revenues are so deeply reduced that funds are not there to support the unemployed or to pay for such fundamentals as education, health and law and order. Households and communities will find it hard, bordering on impossible, to pay their way. Such necessities as food and even water supplies could be hard to get. Communities will therefore have to provide these things for themselves, or do without. They will need to rediscover their locality and local skills, rebuild a culture, and apply the power of lean thinking; sharply focused, widely shared.

The shocks of descent converging (as outlined in the Dictionary) into our culture’s “climacteric” will leave nothing in our lives unchanged. We cannot now avoid it, but it can be managed, mitigated, made survivable, recognised as our species’ toughest, but greatest, opportunity. At such moments of discontinuity, with sharp changes of direction, societies—or at least the technologies they use—can slip back, not by years, but by ages: when the Romans arrived in Britain, they found a thriving, technically advanced Celtic Iron Age society; when they left, it retreated, not to the Iron Age, but another 2,000 years further, to the Bronze Age. But we know what we need to do. We need to build the sequel, to draw on inspiration which has lain dormant, like the seed beneath the snow.

 

Here are three guiding principles that may serve us well:

 

Manners

“Manners”, in Lean Logic, are about treating ideas with the respect, attention and good humour needed to hear them. They open us up to encounter with nature, with each other and with our own thinking minds. Logic and manners are closely linked. The rules of thinking, informal logic, judgment and reasonable conversation are rules of good manners, and this guide to thinking about the future is also a Book of Manners.

The art of recognising the difference between honest argument and fraud has been in poor health of late. That’s good enough for a political economy which is overflowing with the riches of oil and held together by the self-interest of the market, and where there is a range of choice, with plenty of ways to be right, and second chances if you’re wrong. But in our new, urgent world, getting it right matters more. If we are to usefully think through systems-solutions—as lean thinking would have us do—the first system to be aware of is the system of language, insight and self-deception that guides, or confuses, the way we think.

For a taster of some of the hazards that can arise in conversation, see “How to Cheat in an Argument” at the end of this Introduction. The accepted name for these hazards is “fallacies”, and they are so common that it is sometimes hard to think of any argument in which at least one of the participants has not built his or her case on one of these fault lines. The potential for mayhem and grief is large. They are best avoided or, at least, understood. It is partly a matter of taking the time to reflect, to listen so carefully to what nature and people are telling us, and to what we are telling ourselves, that we may discover, over time, practical and astonishing responses to a fiercely difficult future.

 

Scale and presence

It is widely supposed that large size confers advantages. It is claimed to be more efficient, since there are economies of scale: once you have got things set up for a particular task, you can get a lot more done for relatively little extra cost and effort (lower unit costs), and you can go on building on that principle—up to a point. And yet, large-scale systems have problems, many of which apply to large-scale anything—including animals. They need large quantities of stuff (water, fuel, materials, information), which must be gathered over long distances; they may require complicated infrastructures; they then have to get rid of the waste; and they need complex specialisms to do all this. And, in the case of a big-city state, there is disempowerment. It is like a wave: you can ride it, but not steer it.

In contrast, small scale has its own economies: shorter transport distances, less waste, less infrastructure (lower total costs), more attention to detail, more flexibility, and it opens the way to empowerment: you can make a difference. For instance, given a chance, communities on a small enough scale for individuals to feel real influence can be so effective that doing the apparently impossible is their daily bread. Anarchists in terms of their independence, orderly in terms of ownership and responsibility for their particular places, surprising in their inventiveness, they are, even now, beginning to wake up to a long transition from the global city, towards located habitats on a human scale.

This is presence. It is about rediscovering citizenship, taking part in the life and creativity of well-beloved places that would not, without it, have a hope of coping with their future. There was something of this in the mind of one of history’s early defenders of what we might now call the Big Society, Pericles.1 In his 431 BC funeral oration for those who had fallen in the most recent year of the Peloponnesian War, he spoke of the virtues and values for which Athens was fighting. At the heart of this culture he placed ordinary citizens: these “fair judges of public matters”, he said, bring “daring and deliberation” to politics, and “regard him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless”.2

That is the spirit of our age: the Transition movement, Lean Logic’s “presence”, lean thinking, the principle of co-production, local people who care for local people . . . the idea is getting about. And there are those who haven’t waited for local participation to be invented and given a name, for they have been doing it for generations anyway. But the rediscovery of something as obvious as presence (in this sense of participation) is not trivial: since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, and especially in the century since 1914, it has been draining away. Many of the would-be participants died in the trenches and their sequels; the command-and-control culture of war acquired the standing of a public virtue; the large-scale state, dazzled by its good intentions, saw itself as provider; iconic liberties engaged our attention while regulation closed in; economic competitiveness usurped other standards. While democracy has advanced, the part we ordinary citizens have played in the making and sustaining of the places and communities we live in has diminished. Never has so much been decided for so many by so few.

And yet, as that accursed century—saeculum maledictum—draws to an end, we may have learned enough to come together, to develop ideas with brilliance and authority, being present, participating, investing imagination, being inspired by, and bringing inspiration to, the places we live in.

 

Slack

It is a truth universally acknowledged that competitiveness is a good thing. It is a life-saver, in that it enables an economy to pay its way. It is a provider of equity, in that it enables people to achieve wealth and status on their own merits. And it is the only way in which a price-based market economy will work. But it comes at a cost.

A competitive market economy must, by definition, be “taut”. The price charged by Fred for his goods will hold only so long as the price charged by Dan for the same goods, in the same place, is no lower. If it is, Fred will need to reduce his prices, or else to go out of business. Prices for goods therefore tend to converge to the same level. And that level requires all the producers in the market to be efficient—to work full-time, to use the methods that cost least, and to sell as much as they can. Producers all understand this necessity—there is little choice in the matter; what distinguishes them is how good they are at doing it. There is a requirement to innovate, because the competitive market is taut: everyone else is doing so, and anyone who does not is quickly priced out of business.

In the future, it will not be like that. Producers will not always want to provide their goods and services in the most efficient way. They may—for good local reasons—want to use a technology which is more expensive. For instance, it could make sense, from the point of view of the resilient community, to use less energy, water or material, at the cost of having to spend more on labour. Or local craftsmen may be able to keep up with local demand for long-lasting goods despite working for only three days a week. Or producers may simply decide not to produce the maximum quantity, and to take it easy and produce according to what they see as reasonable need, or what they have the time for, after spending time with family and neighbours.

All these choices would have the effect of raising the price of the goods supplied by that producer or—if other producers did the same—by the community as a whole. In a taut market, such decisions could not be made. If they were, they would not stick, because a producer that tried to do so would be quickly put out of business by others who went for the cheaper option, the efficient and competitive one. Any market that did manage to make such sensible, yet inefficient, decisions stick, would be slack—and it would be at constant risk of being stymied by competitive producers seizing the opportunity to make easy money by producing and selling at a lower price.

How can a community, despite all this, be mistress of its own fate in this sense? How can it sustain that condition of slack—that is, have the freedom to make enlightened decisions and make them stick? Well, here is the good news. The “normal” state of affairs, before the era of the great civic societies, and in the intervals between them, has consisted of political economies—perhaps better known in this case as villages—where the terms on which goods and services were exchanged were not based on price. Instead, they were built around a complex culture of arrangements—obligations, loyalties, collaborations—which express the nature and priorities of the community and the network of relationships and reciprocities between its members. No, don’t scoff. This is what households still do—and friends, neighbours, cricket teams, magistrates, parent-teacher associations, allotment holders; this is the non-monetary ‘informal economy’, the central core that enables our society to exist. It is outrageous to the received values of now: it is not transparent; it is nonconformist; social mobility in it is limited; it is neither efficient nor competitive; it is full of anomalies. But it keeps things going.

So, back to the question: how does this political economy manage to keep such an apparently unstable regime going? Well, it turns on culture. Sheer naked loyalties and family values can only go so far. There needs to be something interesting, connecting, going on too—something to talk about, to cooperate in, to mull over, to aim for, to laugh at; there needs to be a story to tell, something to coordinate and to do together. A culture is like the upright strands that you begin with in basket-making, round which you wind the texture of the basket itself: no sticks, no basket; no culture, no community. It is the context, the story, that identifies a community and gives it existence. It is both the parent and child of ‘social capital’. And the social capital of a community is its social life—the links of cooperation and friendship between its members. It is the common culture and ceremony, the good faith and reciprocal obligations, the civility and citizenship, the play, humour and conversation which make a living community, the cooperation that builds its institutions. It is the social ecosystem in which a culture lives.

Ever since Adam Smith observed that people are willing to carry out almost any service for each other despite being motivated by nothing more than commercial self-interest, it has seemed to be unnecessary and ridiculous to suppose that there is any significant role for such higher motives as benevolence. Economists simply haven’t needed such concepts. Well, they do now. The economics of the future will be benignly and inextricably entangled with social capital—with intense links of reciprocity—in comparison with which the reduction of economic and social relations to the piteous simplicities of prices is not up to standard any longer, and is due for retirement. It is now all right to speak of benevolence as an economic concept, for economics is at the early stages of being reintegrated into community, and community into the whole nature of the living things that belong there. It will not be from the impersonal price-calculations of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from the reciprocal obligations that join a community together, and the benevolence among its members.

Slack is the space in which judgment lies. The early shocks of descent may leave little room for choice: just one tolerable option could be a fine thing, and that may be as much as most of us can hope for, at least for the time being. In the mature settlements that could follow, however, the tyranny of decisions being made in lock-step with competitive pricing will be an ancient memory. There will be time for music.

 

So what does that leave Lean Logic to do? In fact, hang on, how does one deal with such a book? Is it a dictionary to be consulted for the occasional word? Is it a book to read right through? Or is it some mixture of the two? Well, the answer to that is that it is a lean book. It does not have the last word. You, the reader, are invited to explore ideas from more than one point of view, to follow the links, to build up your own familiarity with the key concepts, in your own way.

Lean Logic is a community of essay-entries about inventive, cooperative self-reliance. Each entry is complete in itself, but also joins up with others, and signposts to those connections are supplied in the entries. Inheriting and inventing families of enabling principles (such as the rules of chess, the instruments of music or the grammar of language), we can construct things with more confidence and ambition than we could if we had to invent everything from first principles. Whether Lean Logic has a place on the edge of these enabling principles it is too soon to say. But it may, perhaps, provide some of the little bricks that, with luck, judgment and conversation, turn out to fit together.

A useful place to start is at A Guide to Lean Logic, which lists principal entries under fourteen questions that might occur to you on coming to the book for the first time. Links between them are suggested—it may help to make sense of one idea when you know something about related ones, from which more links extend, without any guarantee that you will discover a place where the logical sequence starts. It is, perhaps, like arriving in a group or a community: you learn about its members and their relationships with each other by being in the middle of it: there is no beginning or end. The more you know the group, the more you yourself become part of it, and part of its story. It is a story about the shared experience of something discovered, something discussed, something done.