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Lean Lessons from the Dojo

May 20, 2017


My six-year old daughter studies Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at the Renzo Gracie Academy in Portland, Oregon.  I strongly believe the greatest gift you can give your children is discipline and there she gets plenty of it.   

As a Lean practitioner, the more time I spend in the Renzo Gracie Dojo, the more I see how the community their puts Lean to practice in a way that should be modeled:

  • The humility of students to come to a teacher to learn

  • The Katas (routines) to build skill

  • The respect for the individual in slapping hands before going into combat and not harboring ill will after being challenged on the mat

But what stands out to me the most is the ability of students to self-govern when the teacher walks away.  One particular exercise demonstrates this well.  It’s called the “Sumo Box.”  In the Sumo Box, two students face off and the goal is simple:  out-skill your opponent into falling outside the lines of the box they are in.  The teacher has students outside the box who are watching stop the match should one opponent cross the line.  What amazes me is that, without fail, once the line is crossed, students outside the box stop the match and announce the winner quickly.  

To Lean practitioners, the staying inside the Sumo Box is a standard.  If we switch gears to business, such as a hospital or insurance company, how hard is it to get employees to call out when a standard is broken?  How much effort does it take to ensure standards are honored?  One study cites hand-washing in a healthcare setting by employees to be as low as 30%!!!  So why is it that children ranging from 5 to 8 years-old can honor a standard so easily?  After watching this game several times, the answer to this question is that the standard is

  • Simple 

  • Visual

  • And easily identified when broken by all (requiring discipline)

Too many organizations define standards as documents that are long and end up in cabinets.  True standards become culture or a way of behaving.  However, so many fail because they can’t simplify or avoid simplification because they are not ready for the discipline.  Perhaps more executives should lead with humility and seek the lessons to be learned from children in the Dojo or risk their ultimate fate:  being pushed outside the Sumo Box by their competitors.  

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