I was in Portugal last week for the Business Process Management Conference and took the opportunity to visit Rome while I was on the Continent, something I have long wanted to do and now wish I had done much sooner.  Looking up in the Sistine Chapel or standing in front of the Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica is nothing short of awe inspiring.

pietaAs I looked at the Pieta I thought of Michelangelo’s famous quote, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”  While I would like to say that all of my thoughts in the Basilica were spiritual ones, the truth is that I could not get past the quote and its almost direct application to lean thinking. We could just as accurately say that ‘Every company has lean excellence inside it and it is the task of leadership to discover it.’

What Michelangelo did when he sculpted the Pieta was to chip, sand, and file away all of the wasted stone, leaving behind the beauty.  He added nothing new – he simply took away all that was unnecessary; all that got in the way of perfection.

That is very much the way of lean.  It is not anything extra.  Rather, it is getting all of the waste carved out, leaving the valuable behind.  The people, with all of their capability, intelligence, creativity and enthusiasm are already in place.  The leader simply has to chisel away all of the nonsense that keeps it from coming forth.

The manufacturing processes are all there.  We simply have to get all of the unneeded handling, space, and inventory between them out of the way and let them flow.  Lean accounting is nothing more than carving out all of the misleading allocations, assignments, accruals and calculations, leaving behind, as Jean Cunningham calls it, the ‘Real Numbers’.

Too many folks make the mistake of thinking that lean is something extra, an additional set of activities and things to do while, in fact, the opposite is true.  The key is to have the vision just like Michelangelo did.  He was able to look at that big block of marble and see the Pieta hiding inside it.  Lean leaders need to do the same – to look at the business and see an incredible group of people making things flow like never before.