Masking Problems and the Illusion of Progress

It’s been two weeks since theThinkShack post It’s Time to Stop and Fix Something was featured on the homepage.  Since then, I can’t seem to get Principle #5 of the 14 Principles from the Toyota Way out of my mind…

Build a culture of stopping to fix problems, to get quality right the first time.

Please get this: It doesn’t say, “Stop and fix the problems”.  It does say…Build a culture.

Check out this video on China addressing Beijing’s pollution issue: (you may need to click link into YouTube – video is 1:37)

Beijing officials are not solving the pollution problem.  They’re masking it.  Also, they have a culture problem.  They have not built a culture where people are taught to methodically study problems (my guess is the garbage is piling up so quickly, they’ve fallen behind on respect for people concerns).  So what’s the result?  Rather than focus on the root cause(s) of the bad smell, they spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and money trying to mask the problem.

Within such a culture, the illusion of progress is dangerous.  We find ourselves justifying all kinds of things that are 180 degrees away from lean solutions.  Here’s another video link to the same problem which illustrates the point further (short – 1:09 long).

I wonder what the capital cost of the deodorant cannons was?  Daily operating costs now?Did you hear the concerns of the professor?  He’s worried about having too many cannons because they will cause noise pollution!  Noise pollution should not be your focus…find ways to stop the build-up, and get rid of, the garbage!

According to, here’s some other ideas adding to ‘the waste’: (good video as well if you have the time – 3:21)

  1. “In an attempt to win public confidence, the managers of a new 800m yuan incinerator in Gao’antun set up a giant display screen earlier this month that contains real-time data on emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.”
  2. “Government plans to build 82 incinerators between 2006 and 2010 have encountered an increasingly hostile “not-in-my-backyard” movement.
  3. “Municipal authorities say they will also apply more plastic layers to cover the site in response to furious protests by local residents who have to put up with the stench when the wind blows in their direction.”

Giant display screens, angry residents, and more plastic sheeting to help mask the real issue.  The illusion of progress.  None of it helps…all waste.

From the same article, “According to the local government, the city (Beijing) of 17m people generates 18,000 tonnes of waste every day – 7,000 tonnes more than the capacity of municipal disposal plants”.  Difficult to argue that they are not aware of where the true problem lies.

The article concludes with comments regarding recyclable and non-recyclable options provided for local residents, but…”few people are aware of the distinction because there has not been an adequate public education campaign”.  Back to the culture issue.

The lean lesson here is of course, the importance of culture.  The vast majority of companies today professing to have adopted some form of lean concepts are focused only on continuous improvement.  They settle for the ‘illusion of progress’ by keeping busy with the things that only mask the real issue…the issue of building and nurturing a culture of continuous improvement and respect for people.

Lean is a system.  You need both to succeed.  How high is your garbage piling up?

About Steve Martin - theThinkShack

Hey there...I'm Steve. I built theThinkShack...a virtual hideaway about Lean Thinking and how it Connects to Everyday Life.
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One Response to Masking Problems and the Illusion of Progress

  1. Benny says:

    This idea of masking rather than finding the root of the issue is prevalent in organizations and personal lives I think. You are correct in pointing out the nuance of that statement and clarifying it for it is necessary.

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