Lean’s Missing Link: Nemawashi

Braus
Braus
Jun 4 · 3 min read

Is Agile or Lean not working as you expected in your org? You might be missing a critical piece of the puzzle.

Five years ago, Tim’s company started to pay some serious lip service to being “lean.” It had started after management and HR brought in a lean speaker and consultant. After that managers and “lean champions” had been attempting to make the organization more “agile,” but upper management had not really embraced the new fad, and there was not help, buy-in, and training for folks on the front lines. Teams got changed around. Everyone started to have “sprint meetings” instead of just “weekly meetings” and that was about it.

Why does this story ring so true in so many organizations? Even if you embrace Kanban (the public board of todos that keeps everyone in sync) and Kaizen (retrospectives and continuous improvement), or even the radical Kaikaku (the famous and head spinning decision to pivot to new behavior). It just sometimes amounts to window-dressing or at worst, lipstick on a pig. Why does lean fall flat in so many organizations when it promises so much?

The Secret: Lean has a missing link

Could you run your retro’s better? Sure. Could you improve buy-in around the org? Sure. Could you use data better to make better decisions? Sure. But I’m here to tell you with all of that, there will be one thing missing and that is called Nemawashi or, as I translate it in my new book on how to add nemawashi to your organization: Leading Change at Work, piecemeal consensus.

Nemawashi and The Roots of Lean

Let’s play telephone.

The game starts in Japan after World War II. Toyota engineers and managers developed the TPS — the Toyota Production System — which revolutionized industrial manufacturing. When Japanese cars and cameras started to beat out their German and American counterparts, the west woke up to the power of TPS. In America, manufacturers adopted Just In Time methods of production based on TPS. This was then adapted by management consultants and called Lean. That was then further adapted for software companies and called Agile.

At each link in this chain, the TPS lost something.

The TPS started with 14 core concepts (well summarized in the book The Toyota Way). By the end, lean and agile had only about 3 (the ones I listed above).

Of all 14 original core concepts of the TPS, the one that was ignored the most was Nemawashi. Let’s look at how lean cannot succeed without building piecemeal consensus.

Nemawashi: Piecemeal Consensus

It is great if you have your kanban board and your retrospective coming up and a few possible pivots that your company could take, but all of that is like an engine with no oil. All the speed and … well… agility of being agile needs a lot of lubrication to prevent things to flow and work smoothly.

Nemawashi is the oil in the engine of lean

Nemawashi means “building piecemeal consensus” — its not run of the mill consensus decision making where everyone sits around and sings Kumbiaya. Cynically speaking, that kind of perfect collaboration never works. Even if your organization is full of saints, if everyone goes into one room and tries to grind out a big decision, it is going to be a slog and I don’t hold out much hope.

By using building piecemeal consensus to have your cake (deep collaboration and consensus) and eat it too (moving fast and efficiently).

How does it work? I describe a simple 5 step process for anyone to lead change in my book, but I’ll tell you the core insight here: have many brief one-on-one meetings instead of one big one. That’s it.

If the owner of a decision meets for 5 minutes with five or six teammates (or even 25 or 26) they can build a collaborative consensus that goes down to the bone around a recommendation both fast and efficiently.

If lean is lagging, just think its an engine without oil. Start having brief piecemeal consensus meetings and you will see immediately that nemawashi was what your organization was missing.

About me — Adam Braus is an author, engineer, consultant, trainer, and speaker in San Francisco. Follow him on medium, work with him and sign up for his newsletter by going to adambraus.com.

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