Of all the Founding Fathers of the United States, perhaps none draws more admiration than Benjamin Franklin.
Even more than two centuries later, Franklin still looks like a man ahead of his time. In addition to helping forge the documents and political coalitions needed to create a new kind of government, Franklin also was a rational man of science and a source of common sense wisdom.
For advocates of process improvement, he also has another interesting aspect to his legacy. He essentially practiced Lean methodology centuries before it actually became a methodology.
In fact, he summed up the thinking behind Lean Six Sigma in this quote from “Poor Richard’s Almanack”: “He that idly loses 5s worth of time, loses 5s, and might as prudently throw 5s into the river.”
Franklin wrote and published the almanac from 1732 to 1758.
See what we mean by ahead of his time?
Poor Richard’s Almanack
It wouldn’t be the worst idea to start an education into Lean Six Sigma by reading “Poor Richard’s Almanack.” In these volumes, Franklin established the no-nonsense, common sense approach to business and life that offers the best in American practicality and work ethic.
Strip away all the nomenclature, and Lean at its heart is about eliminating waste and mistakes, working more efficiently, saving time and producing a higher quality product or service.
In that regard, Franklin’s writings seem genius-level. While ostensibly aimed at personal conduct in many cases, they translate very well for business.
Even Henry Ford, who transformed American manufacturing and practiced many of the steps now part of Lean, attributed the foundation for his ideas to Franklin’s almanac.
Franklin used the persona of “Richard Saunders”, aka Poor Richard, to write the almanac. He apparently borrowed aspects of the persona from Isaac Bickerstaff, a character created by Irish writer Jonathan Swift, according to “The Character of Poor Richard: Its Source and Alteration” by John F. Ross.
The result is a timeless treasure trove of common sense wisdom. Keeping them in mind can help business leaders function better.
Poor Richard’s Advice
The almanac is a wealth of advice for two areas that are significant in Lean.
Businesses adopt Lean Six Sigma to make operations more efficient. They realize that spending less can bring in more money than increasing sales. Poor Richard would agree. Perhaps his most famous saying illustrates that:
“A penny saved is two pence clear….save and have.”
Another simple saying from Poor Richard sums up the need to move beyond endless meetings and debating strategies and into making actual decisions: “Speak little, do much.” He also emphasized the need for action with this saying: “Lost time is never found again.”
Considered in context of customers, the point is obvious. Make a product or service that leads to satisfied customers and the business will flourish. Fail to do that, and, well, the other thing happens.
One of his best sayings speaks to the heart of Lean. Rather than trying to market a company in a certain way, Lean strives to improve the company itself. No saying sums this up better than:
“What you would seem to be, be really.”
We could go on and on. Franklin certainly did. But these sayings and the ideas behind them are powerful reminders of the simple goals of Lean Six Sigma. At its foundation, the methodology seeks to cut through the noise and get to the heart of what makes greatness – just like Franklin did.
At the very least, these sayings should be burned into the mind of anyone working on a Lean project. Or maybe printed out, framed and placed on the wall.
But Wait, There’s More
While “Poor Richard’s Almanack” deservedly gets a lot of attention, Franklin also wrote a book filled with common sense and practical advice called “The Way to Wealth.” Its contents are as straightforward as the title. Many of them speak to Lean concepts.
One of the most memorable sayings involves getting buy-in for a methodology. Lean practitioners know that this can be a long process. Franklin summed up the need to monitor whether people implement what they have been taught with the following:
“The people heard it, and approved the doctrine, and immediately practiced the contrary.”
It’s funny because it’s true. Never think that teaching people once is enough. It’s an ongoing process.
In terms of efficiency in costs, Franklin cautioned that every expense must be accounted for by writing, “Beware of little expenses. A small leak will sink a great ship.”
He also provided a warning that could be applied to businesses that overspend on inventory and unnecessary expenses:
“Buy what thou hast no need of, and ere long thou shalt sell thy necessaries.”
Perhaps most amazingly, Franklin wrote what could almost be a mission statement for businesses committed to the tenets of Lean methodology. Consider this:
“In short, the way to wealth, if you desire it, is as plain as the way to market. It depends chiefly on two words: industry and frugality. Waste neither time nor money, but make the best use of both. He who gets all he can honestly, and saves all he gets, will certainly become rich.”
Clearly, Franklin had a lot to say on the common sense approaches that provide the backbone to his philosophy on life and business. They also provide a good starting place for those who wish to practice Lean.
But don’t take our word for it. Consider these final two quotes from the almanac:
“Today is yesterday’s pupil.”
“If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing.”