KEYNOTE: The Lean Mindset By Mary Poppendieck

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The Little Engine that Could is a child’s book about a tiny engine trying to haul a trainload of toys over a very big mountain. Larger engines have been asked for help, but hauling toys is beneath their dignity. So the little engine agrees to try, and as it chugs up the mountain saying to itself “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…” readers wonder if it will get to the top. This little engine has the Lean Mindset. It welcomes challenge and is not afraid to fail. It’s the kind of mindset that keeps athletes training for years in order to compete in the Olympics; that encourages musicians to practice for hours each day. Athletes and musicians know that if you do not make mistakes when you practice, you aren’t improving.

Yet in our companies, we expect perfection; we have no systems that encourage people to stretch beyond the limits of success and learn through failure. We do not look for leaders who are still learning — we look instead for leaders who are done learning — and we deserve what we get.

The Lean Mindset brings a sense of adventure and experimentation and learning to our work. It encourages us to hire little engines that can rather than big engines that can’t. It values improvement — which means we aren’t yet perfect; it values exploration — rather than executing the wrong plan; it welcomes failure — because failure means we have raised our game to the next level.

Mary Poppendieck (@mpoppendieck)
Founder, Poppendieck LLC