Variation Can Help: Lean Muppet Post 1

Okay, so there’s nothing about this video that isn’t cute. And that’s fine. But what does it have to do with Lean?

One of the most important lessons that Lean can teach us is how to appreciate variation and make the most of it.

When Jim Henson and this little girl went on set, it was to create a product – an item of value. The task, as originally written, was to create a short video where Kermit and the little girl sang the English alphabet. A simple progression of 26 letters. So simple that variation was inconceivable and no other product was possible.

But little girls do not have SixSigma Black Belts or PMI certification (thank heavens!).

So the cameras roll and the little girl suddenly becomes a point source in variation, undermining the original scope of work and putting the project in danger. She keeps injecting “Cookie Monster” in the alphabet, as if he were a letter in the English Alphabet.

Cookie Monster is not a letter in the English Alphabet.

The little girl thinks this is very funny. Kermit does not, because Kermit is a project manager locked into one irreversible type of value.

Jim Henson, operating Kermit, knows that he can use rewards and penalties to get the product he wants. He knows that the little girl is really excited to be there with Kermit and that taking Kermit away will get her to settle down and sing the alphabet. So Kermit storms off.

But rather than saying “Kermit, come back, I will sing the alphabet!” this little girl finds the true value – the honest value – and says with a sincerity that anyone can admire:

“I love you!”

And, even in the video, you can actually feel the impact this had on Jim Henson. Another day at the office turned into a beautiful gift.

All because of variation.

The real beauty here is that even though this product was fundamentally broken –  fundamentally it did not achieve its initial goal – Jim and the people at Children’s Television Workshop thought this lesson was worth sharing. They saw that through variation in their youngest of knowledge workers, there was innovation and inspiration.

There was value in variation.

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5 Responses to Variation Can Help: Lean Muppet Post 1

  1. Adam Yuret says:

    But how can Kermit convince the shareholders and the board that they’ll get a perfect rendition from A-Z before the quarterly earnings call?

  2. Pingback: The Lean Muppet Series: Introduction | Personal Kanban

  3. Ben Morris says:

    Hmmmm, I can see it now PMP-Jr (TM). Every pre-school should work that into the curriculum. Of course, they’ll have to remove about 3 hrs/day of creative play, but it is all for the better.

  4. Adam Yuret says:

    Don’t worry Ben, there can still be the 3 hours. Every PMP I know self-describes as doing >100% For example: “I’m 75% Scrum Master, 75% release manager” and such. So PMPs have to learn to fit more into a day than is physically possible. PMPjr will just be 125% busy at pre-school. :-)

  5. Paul Osborn says:

    Lovely video. I love Sesame Street. This a great example of ‘harnessing the value’ of variability. Reinertsen talks about this a lot in “Flow”. He says that product management is enriched by variability in a way that mechanical processes are not – just as you illustrate here. +1

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