You must lack common sense!

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on February 24, 2010 · 17 comments

Kiyoshi Suzaki, a lean thinker who deserves to be at the top of any lean guru list, wrote:

Lean tools are common sense – after the fact.

I think that makes sense based on my observations. People see it, and they want to call lean “common sense”. Some organizations and I believe even books have called it “Common Sense Manufacturing.” Besides the fact, as Suzaki points out, that it’s not really common sense, there is a bigger problem.

By telling everyone that it is common sense, you are sending them the message that:

1. They lack common sense

2. They shouldn’t challenge it, because how can you challenge common sense.

3. Anyone not doing this probably doesn’t deserve to live, let alone going on working here.

Is that respecting people? Even if that doesn’t matter to you, will that be the best message to send if you want their buy in? At best what you will get is quiet compliance.

Taiichi Ohno said something a bit differently:

Common sense is always wrong.

This I believe is a more sensible approach to common sense. We must challenge what we think we know. If everyone is absolutely certain (think world is flat, 9 planets in the solar system examples), then no one is challenging it. And it’s probably wrong.

Don’t let your choice of words get in the way of your choice of purpose and vision.

What is your reaction when you hear “common sense” as a descriptor? What is your reaction?

For books by Suzaki and Ohno, check out these options:

1 Juan February 24, 2010 at 7:50 am

Hi Jamie,
I am a big believer on always challenging the status QUO.

Common Sense is relative to the person’s frame of reference, what is common sense for some could not be common sense for others. There relies the fact that you always need to challenge or question – for example eliminating waste – is a never ending journey, becuase we can always be better or leaner.

The question goes back – How can we send the same message accross the whole organization where you everybody questions/challenges the status quo or common sense?

2 Mark Graban February 24, 2010 at 9:18 am

I think it’s a bit of a loaded term. I try really hard to not blame people for things they don’t know or haven’t been taught.

It seems like “common sense” to batch up work in a process. Once you learn some lean principles and experiment with better flow, the “new common sense” is to not batch so much (or not accept batching as necessary, forcing you to come up with a better layout to reduce batching, for example). It seems like common sense *in hindsight*.

I think when someone says it of their own discovery “it seems like common sense” that’s OK. When we put it on others “that should be common sense (to you)” then it runs the risk of being insulting. It’s like saying “I learned to think differently” versus lecturing somebody “you need to think differently”. A lot of it is in the tone and body language, which certainly doesn’t come through here in a blog comment!!

3 Jim Baran February 24, 2010 at 9:37 am

During an interview for my second HR Leader role, VP referred to HR as a “bouquet of common sense”. My reply was “why do you need me”? I got the job. I later learned nothing about how they treated people was common or made sense.


4 Mark Welch February 24, 2010 at 9:56 am

I sometimes think that if lean were just common sense, then why isn’t almost everyone doing it? Most everyone has common sense, right? Since lean is easier to understand than it is to actually do, it’s sometimes passed off as common sense, as in, “Yeah, Yeah, I get it. I just don’t have the time do to all of that lean stuff.”

5 Ron Pereira February 24, 2010 at 10:29 am

I think this quote pretty much sums it up, “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” I believe this came from Albert Einstein.

6 Joseph T. Dager February 24, 2010 at 10:30 am

When I think of common sense, I think of the word Obvious. However, the things that get done are the obvious. How many times after we participate in a Kaizen or a workshop or read a book, we say to ourselves, I knew that. Just wondered why it was never put into practice. So maybe common sense is not the Obvious but the validation of the obvious.

7 Mark Graban February 24, 2010 at 10:35 am

Will Rogers said:

“Common sense ain’t common.”

8 Brian Buck February 24, 2010 at 12:07 pm

I like Suzaki’s quote.

While Lean concepts are simple and common sense, the applications of them are elegant. As Mark Welch said above it is easier to understand than it is to actually do.

I also like to point out the difference between common knowledge (how things are done around here) versus common sense. It is easy to blur the two if not consciously separated.

9 Jamie Flinchbaugh February 24, 2010 at 2:15 pm

I wasn’t expecting so many great comments, I really appreciate the participation.

Brian – common knowledge and common sense are indeed different. It is the differences between information and wisdom, data and judgement.

10 Jon Miller February 24, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Hi Jamie

I agree with your point about respect for people.

The operative term in Suzaki’s quote is “after the fact” meaning that in hindsight, we see that lean was all common sense. I took his meaning to be the same as yours, that it’s all common sense but we don’t see this until we’ve implemented lean and looked back and slapped our forehead.

11 Mark Graban February 24, 2010 at 3:11 pm

And slapping your own forehead is the key! Too many throw “common sense” around as a way of slapping the foreheads of others!

12 Liz Guthridge, The LEAN Communicator February 25, 2010 at 2:53 am

Provocative discussion you started, Jamie! Very interesting. For what it’s worth, besides trying to avoid the phrase “common sense,” I prefer not to use the phrase “challenge the status quo.” For the latter, I’m trying to talk more about “questioning the assumptions we’re operating under.” When we do that, we start to realize that many of us may be working with very different assumptions that may either be in conflict or outdated. That helps get important details out in the open while not dissing anyone.

13 Jefferson Martin/synfluent February 25, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Perhaps we would be better served if the term ‘common sense’ were changed to it’s more positive form as ‘common purpose’.

Great organizational leaders were able to create a common vision amongst their workers which produced predictable outcomes. Common purpose, shared purpose; common sense.

It is a shame that the term has become so loaded, as Mark pointed out above, in our current language.

Jamie, if you enjoy Suzaki, you may enjoy Kenichi Ohmae, as well.

14 JC Gatlin February 25, 2010 at 9:07 pm

Sometimes when I hear people refer to lean as “common sense,” it sounds like they’re discounting the discipline and methodology of the concept. They’re resisting change because they don’t realize or understand the depth of waste or how destructive recurring problems are.

15 Justin Tomac February 27, 2010 at 2:43 pm

I agree, such a loaded term that is based upon ones experiences.
When the words “common sense” are mentioned, thoughts of farmers and ranchers of old come to mind. Each one challenged their own thinking on a daily basis to solve the problems as they came up.

16 Michel Baudin September 7, 2011 at 11:02 am

Common sense is sound, practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge or training. It’s not my opinion, it’s Webster’s. In other words, it is the best you can use in a situation you have not been prepared for. If you are a software designer accidentally stranded in the Alaskan wilderness, your survival depends on your common sense.
On the other hand, if manufacturing is your profession and you have been at it for 20 years, it is a reasonable expectation that the solutions you come up with should be more than common sense.

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