On Principles

No one enjoys chaos. Over the past couple years I have come to appreciate the tremendous value of principles. Living life by a set of rules that are general, powerful and not overly prescriptive allows for a structured approach to all the vicissitudes that we face. I believe that many of us unconsciously develop principles over time. Our principles are typically derived from our family, culture and experience, but too often our principles are not consciously created – they are created by osmosis. This path can lead to a number of problems as the principles we adopt from our culture may be in contradiction with principles our heart actually wants to follow. This contradiction can then lead to a myriad of issues and conflicts with others. The intentional development of personal principles seems to be an essential ingredient to a happy and healthy life.

The concept of principles is anything but novel. The Ten Commandments are principles, Seneca set out moral principles in his letters to Lucilius, government constitutions are principles and we can find principles in documents created over the ages. If we define principles as, “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behaviour or for a chain of reasoning.” then the world is full of systems of belief that are both overlapping, compatible and often highly incompatible. The challenge in life is to find the principles that allow you to succeed, feel fulfilled and lead a good and moral life. This is perhaps the greatest challenge any of us face.

Principles can be morally good, bad or indifferent. Principles can be dogmatic or flexible. Principles can be immutable or evolve over time. Principles can be related to our morality, to our societies, to science, to our businesses or to our operations. They can be strategic and they can be tactical. In short, we can create principles for nearly anything. So far, I have begun to ween away some principles that I may have absorbed through my environment and I have begun to intentionally select the principles I wish to live by. At 37 years old, this seems late in the game and it would have been nice to realize all of this at a younger age!

The one set of principles that I can confidently say I believe in are the principles of Lean Manufacturing. The five key principles of Lean are:

  1. Value – Specify the value desired by the customer. “Form a team for each product to stick with that product during its entire production cycle”, “Enter into a dialogue with the customer” (e.g. Voice of the customer)
  2. The Value Stream – Identify the value stream for each product providing that value and challenge all of the wasted steps (generally nine out of ten) currently necessary to provide it
  3. Flow – Make the product flow continuously through the remaining value-added steps
  4. Pull – Introduce pull between all steps where continuous flow is possible
  5. Perfection – Manage toward perfection so that the number of steps and the amount of time and information needed to serve the customer continually falls

As simple as these may sound, they are exceedingly difficult to follow and implement. These principles can be applied to many aspects of our day to day lives, but they are restricted to the operational realm. These principles help ensure operational excellence within an organization or a process. They do not touch many other parts of our lives. On top of these principles, Toyota (and other companies) have built complex and rigorous systems that allows them to deliver goods and services at remarkable costs. The complexity of a modern gasoline car is truly astounding its low cost could never have been predicted 50 years go. Following Lean principles can also help individuals reduce their wasted money and improve everything from home renovation projects to emptying the dishwasher.

As with other sets of principles the danger is that these principles can lock you into a system that has limitations. Within a system, you can embrace these principles fully but when there is a paradigm shift you will be left behind. Toyota is still the best car company in the world, but the future likely belongs to Tesla. Blockbuster may have embraced lean, but Netflix crushed them. The Catholic Church ruled the world until Copernicus determined the earth was not the centre of the universe. When the underlying rules change or when a new technology emerges, the principles you held need dearly to be seriously re-evaluated. Changing your principles may be the only thing harder than setting them in the first place.

I am still toying with a variety of principles for life and happiness, it’s complicated, but I will keep you posted as we progress.

Published on July 19, 2020