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Wizard of Oz

Lean Lessons from 'The Wizard of Oz'

Follow the Yellow Brick Road to heightened organizational wisdom.

Lean can be a complicated journey, with twists, turns, and obstacles along the way. I have been on the journey with over 300 companies, yet it’s impossible to create a detailed map for a flawless expedition. However, I do know the ingredients for success and many the pitfalls to avoid. The journey is no less amazing, both with good and bad, than Dorothy’s travels in “The Wizard of Oz.”

First of all, there is a Yellow Brick Road. This is your lean roadmap. It is what you consider the ideal best path forward. Like all roadmaps, you have to start from where you stand, which is why generic roadmaps are troublesome. Like Dorothy, you may not always be able to stay on your Yellow Brick Road, but when you find twists and turns, having that roadmap helps you find your way back on track.

Along that path you might encounter some difficult spots. Dorothy and her friends’ entanglement with the Fighting Trees are such an obstacle. These are often issues unrelated to your primary journey, but can also stop you in your tracks. These might be unplanned issues, like fighting through a recession in the market. They can also be planned and positive, such as a merger, that distracts you from progress. The point is, if you stay entangled with the Fighting Trees, you won’t make progress on your path.

You will also find that people can be obstacles. Some are overt, such as the Wicked Witch of the West. These adversaries often remain as nameless as the Wicked Witch, somewhat because they exist as much in our imagination as in reality. However, there will be people working against you, often through passive-aggressive means. Each of them has their reasons, but I’ve found the most common reason is they do not believe that they can be successful in a lean culture. They would prefer an environment of control, primarily their control. A culture that empowers people and creates transparency is very uncomfortable. However, like Dorothy, remain more focused on achieving your goals than on beating the Wicked Witch.

The army of Winged Monkeys may be even more terrifying. They have no agenda and there is no arguing with them; they simply mindlessly act, as they did against Dorothy and her friends. In your organization, this is the silent majority who think and act in the spirit of “that’s not how we do things” and “that won’t work here.” They do not want to question the current state, or seek a better future. They just keep doing what they are told. These people are not out to get you, but you must win them over. They must believe that their engagement can make the Land of Oz a better place.

But just as much, you have people who can help you on the journey, if you are willing. Let’s start with Glinda the Good Witch of the North. Consider her your “lean guru”, whether an outside advisor or internal leader with multiple lean experiences. Glinda understands Dorothy’s journey and goal, and helps her on her way. However, an important truth is that Dorothy must still take her own trip. Your consultant or advisor cannot take the lean journey for you. They can guide and assist, but this is your journey to take.

More important, we have the people in your organization, represented as the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion. There are two important lessons from Dorothy’s journey with her three friends. First, she needs their help, but they must all help in their own special way. Your organization can help you, but not always on your terms. Sometimes they will help your lean journey in ways you didn’t anticipate, and you need to be open to that. Second, Dorothy must care more about what they gain from the journey than what she gains. If your lean journey works against the people throughout, and they don’t benefit from the effort, then you are unlikely to be successful.

So follow the Yellow Brick Road, and enjoy the twists and turns of your lean journey.

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