How an Oyster Drove Continuous Improvement

Originally published on LinkedIn on October 4, 2014

At Toyota, problems are treated like treasures. But what can you do if problems remain hidden….how can you solve invisible problems? Here’s a story for leaders to understand why this happens and what they can do about it.


The Oyster

An oyster sitting at the bottom of the ocean noticed a loose pearl stuck inside a small crack inside a coral.

“Aha,” she thought, “humans hunt for oysters like me hoping to find a pearl inside. Perhaps I can save myself by moving beside it... then the pearl diver will be tempted by the pearl and I can continue my life.”

So the oyster wiggled as close as it could to the pearl.

But when the diver reached the ocean bottom, he did not see the pearl, he only saw the oyster and collected it along with several more oysters.

From the rational point of view of the oyster, it was expected that the human would notice the pearl. But this particular diver had been conditioned for many years to look for oysters and his habituated patterns prevented him from noticing the real treasure. He could only see what he expected to see.

Habituated Blindness

Each of us develops our own unique point of view, much like the pearl diver did, which limits and blinds us to things that might be right in front of us, but are invisible. Then again, we might also be responsible for wanting some problems to remain unseen so that we don’t have to deal with them.

Just because a problem remains hidden does not mean it is not impacting your operation and probably your bottom line.

In my work, the invisible pearl I see we deal with day in day out in our jobs and that is a giant source of frustration and unwanted costs, is linked to problems caused by misunderstandings between people- mainly due to poor communication practices.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Leaders can begin by raising the awareness and the need for paying attention to the negative effects of miscommunication.
  2. If Lean thinking already exists in your organization, it can be adapted to drive improvement in this process too- remember, communication is a process.
  3. Create a culture that rewards mining for every single treasure in every activity so every waste can be brought to the surface. Hint: this might help you move away from the urge to choose only certain types of waste as targets for your Lean work.

What unseen problems might you have in your organization? How are they impacting your productivity and our bottom line?

Have you tried complementing your continuous improvement program with Lean Communication?

WAtch now:

10 Minute Interview<-----  Using Lean in the communication process.