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What Crows Can Teach You About Lean

I recently become fascinated by crows. Turns out they are one of the smartest animals around, and can do some things that most other animals are incapable of. It dawned on me that many of their behaviors would make them outstanding at Lean.

  • Unity of Effort: During the winter months, crows fly home to roost in long streams that stretch across the sky. One passes nearly over my home every evening, and can last for 10 minutes or more as thousands of crows pass by. It is impressive looking. The same unified effort from a team practicing Lean can achieve similarly impressive results.
  • Combining Tools: Crows can think a few steps ahead, and use a series of tools to solve a problem. Similarly, in Lean efforts, a single tool is seldom useful on its own. For example, policy deployment, KPIs, countermeasures, and the various problem solving tools all go hand in hand to getting a team on track.

  • Modifying Tools: Crows have shown the ability to not only use tools, but also to modify them. One of the most amazing examples it that they will fashion a hook out of a twig to fish grubs out of holes. Using tools is important to Lean efforts, but modifying them to suit your needs is what separates the good from the great. When a tool doesn’t get good results in its traditional application, find a way to make it suit your needs. One example is the use of takt time in the office. Most administrative processes have some variation in them. Instead of tracking every single work unit, you can check progress a handful of times in a day. Special cause variation is much more distinguishable from normal variation when tracking is done in ‘time buckets’. (For the math minded among you, this works because of the central limit theorem).

  • Learning from Others: I recently watched an interesting documentary in which researchers presented nesting crows with a threat in the form of a person in a mask. The intent was to see if they taught their young to recognize the danger. Unfortunately, only one of the fledglings survived, but when the same threat was introduced a year later, the now-grown crow signaled its danger call. This was done even though the researcher didn’t act in a threatening manner. For crows, this ability to learn is crucial to survival. For continuous improvement efforts, it means that effort doesn’t have to be wasted reinventing the wheel. This corporate learning works best with a strong knowledge management system in place.
  • Thought Awareness:  Perhaps the example of the highest order thought process was that crows are aware that other crows think. The documentary showed a crow hiding food, and then watching the behavior of other crows to see if they knew about the stash. They realize that the other crow may be faking that they don’t know the hide location. In the same way, it is important to recognize that other people may have different ideas than you do about a change. Not everyone thinks about things the same way.

The bottom line? The next time someone refers to you as a birdbrain, take it as a compliment.


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