In a blurb plugging my new book, The Heart and Soul of Manufacturing, economist Jerry Bowyer wrote, “The economy runs on knowledge, which means it runs on learning, which means it runs on curiosity.”  That word – ‘curiosity’ - is pretty important.  Jon Miller and Mike Wroblewski talked about it in their book “Creating a Kaizen Culture”, stating that in “Traditional culture:  Leaders have answers” while in a “Kaizen Culture:  Leaders have curiosity”.

It really gets right to the heart of things.  The Toyota precept of asking ‘Why?’ five times is really just clearly advocating curiosity.  Too many bosses, it seems, put questions into one of two categories:  Questions they have the answer for, and dumb questions.  When asked “How come we do such and such a thing in such and such a manner?” responding by saying, “I really don’t know.  Let’s take a walk and see if we can find out.” is not within their capability.  Perhaps they see such a response as proving that they are not all knowing and therefore not a worthy boss.  Or perhaps they are afraid of what they might find out – that there is no good reason for doing things in such and such a manner.

In fact, the essence of a gemba walk – a good one anyway – is curiosity.  It is management wondering what really happens in the trenches and why is it happening that way.  Too often it is driven by the old MBO (Management by Objectives) mindset instead of MBM (Management by Means) thinking Tom Johnson so eloquently insists are vital.  When that’s the case, the gemba walk is aimed at finding out who screwed up, rather than motivated by curiosity as to how processes are actually constructed and executed.

Jerry Bowyer was absolutely correct.  Improvement of any kind – innovation – is driven by new ideas and new ideas can only arise from curiosity.  Accounting and ERP are often the enemies of curiosity.  They create the illusions of accuracy and comprehensiveness.  No need to dig further – all you need to know about the reality of the business is on these reports.  Of course, nothing could be further from the truth than accepting such data as complete and true.  The healthy approach is to look at them as indicative of something, but certainly not everything, and to go to the gemba to learn the whole story.

My knowledge of manufacturing and manufacturing management flowed in large part from curiosity – always wanting to know why people in other functions disagreed with the brilliant ideas we conjured up in my department.  It drove me to move from accounting to operations to supply chain to quality, always wanting to know what was happening on the other side of the departmental walls that drove people to see things in such a different manner.  But that curiosity couldn’t have been fulfilled had it not been for a lot of supportive bosses who encouraged me to take new positions and learn.  Most bosses would have told me it wasn’t important and wasn’t my concern – that I should stick to my narrowly defined job and not worry about it.

The curious organization is one that has the raw material needed to do extraordinary things.  That requires curiosity at the top.  And then the natural curiosity of people all the way to the bottom of the organization has to be nurtured and encouraged.  Whether you are the boss, somewhere in the middle or at the bottom of the company totem pole, what happens when you go to someone else and ask “How come?”, and what happens when people come to you and ask the same things?  Does it even happen at all?  The answers to those questions tell quite a bit about the culture and potential of the organization.