Living Systems That Are Lean – Learning to Cooperate and Do Mission Together in the Kingdom of God

9780449903377_p0_v1_s260x420Lean manufacturing, lean enterprise, or lean production, often simply called “Lean,”  is a production practice that considers the expenditure of resources for any goal other than the creation of value for the end customer to be wasteful, and thus a target for elimination. Working from the perspective of the customer who consumes a product or service, “value” is defined as any action or process that a customer would be willing to pay for. The term originated in Japan within the Toyota manufacturing process. I have been aware of “Lean” thinking for a time but not deeply aware enough to get into it in any serious way. This all changed about two weeks ago when I met Jim Sutton, a friend in Washington, Georgia, who introduced himself to me after reading Your Church Is Too Small. We had several long chats on the phone and exchanged several emails over the course of the last nine months or so. On Monday, August 12, I met Jim and his wife Debbie in my hotel in Atlanta. When I asked Jim what he did we began a conversation about “Lean” systems thinking. The more we talked the more I was captured by some of the ideas that Jim conveyed and how they could be employed to promote missional-ecumenism.

Step one was for me to read the book, The Path of Least Resistance: Learning to Become the Creative Force in Your Own Life, by Robert Fritz. I’ll say more about the book this week but it is a game changer for me so far. Fritz, who was trained in music and music composition, argues that most of us, though we may not know it, long to create something in our lives. It may not be painting, a novel, or a musical composition, products we generally associate with “creativity,” but rather something beautiful like a functional kitchen, a computer program, or even good health. Fritz argues that achieving these results requires the same skills as those used by the painter, the novelist or the musician. His book is a revolutionary program for creating anything. It is not based on pop psychology. In fact it is not based on psychology at all. It is rooted in the long tradition of the arts and sciences. In a profound way this is what a good education should have given those of us who received one but much of the system actually failed us because it trapped us inside a pattern resigned to problem solving, not to creating.

I wrote several articles here recently about seminaries and theological education. If I were to sum up what I think seminaries do most negatively I could do it in one short sentence – they kill creativity in those who get a formal education. The solution is not to reject a good seminary education but to help seminaries learn how to embrace non-Western systems thinking and then train students in creativity.

As the same time Jim Sutton began to teach me about “Lean” systems Dr. John Yoon, a dear friend who is a physician and a graduate of our ACT3 Cohort program, sent me a video that presented a biological (one could say “lean systems” here easily enough) perspective of missional-ecumenism. John, who knows me quite well and also understands my mind, suggested that my calling is to be a physician who heals wounds, rebuilds the integrity and unity of the whole body of Christ and restores the catholic church to once again being a “living system.” Oddly (or is it?), this is almost identical to what Jim and I talked about in Atlanta, and on the phone since, with regard to “Lean” systems. And this is what Robert Fritz writes about in The Path of Least Resistance.

I will say more all of this during the week but for now watch the video that Dr. Yoon sent to me last week. Here is a vision of mission created by some church leaders in Boston who began to practice “Lean” system thinking in regards to the missional church long before I even went to college in the late 1960s. What a strikingly simple observation these brothers make. You must agree that this (potentially) has huge implications for missional church and ecumenism if we began to think and create by this system of ideas.

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