feature – was leonardo da vinci a lean thinker? this thought-provoking article looks at his legacy, connects it to lean, and reminds us of how ahead of his time the italian genius was.
words: gianpaolo perlongo and monica rossi
the world doesn’t need any more evidence of the greatness and genius of leonardo da vinci. from his artistic prowess to his discoveries and inventions in fields as diverse as aerodynamics and anatomy, there is no doubt leonardo gave an immense contribution to the advancement of science and human knowledge.
yet, there is an element of his contribution that has so far been overlooked – the lean-like nature of his way of thinking. indeed, the more i leaned about lean thinking, the closer a connection i found with leonardo. this has pushed me to deepen the possible connections and relations between lean and leonardo.
inspired by john shook’s work, i find it natural to look at lean thinking from different perspectives. my aim is to explore and potentially highlight how different developments in science, culture, history, economics, or the arts might influence – directly or indirectly – our understanding and shaping of lean thinking. so, could leonardo’s method and way of thinking have contributed to lean as we know and see it today?
according to john shook and his , lean thinking is a consistent mix of ingredients that incubated at toyota over the course of 30 years and were released to the outside world through a diffusion/dilution process that leads to applicative gaps of lean implementations worldwide. in this sense, could leonardo da vinci help us to bridge such gaps?
in order to answer this question, i drew a comparison between the five lean principles, as described by jim womack and dan jones, and the seven da vincian principles popularized by gelb and illustrated in the book how to think like leonardo da vinci: seven steps to genius every day.
the da vincian principles have been presented by gelb as the conceptualization of leonardo’s methodology and thinking. here they are:
- curiosity – leonardo had a curious attitude towards life and research, a great appetite for continuous learning, and desire to know more about the world around him, its dynamics, and processes. these are the elements behind the depth of his studies and the range of topics he focused on.
- demonstration – leonardo had a natural inclination for testing knowledge through experience and commitment, and a willingness to learn from mistakes. this is one of the reasons he was so ahead of time: he used experience to challenge the status quo and established knowledge. his learning process was based on experimentation and new knowledge was created one mistake at a time.
- sensation – leonardo paid great attention to how the five senses helped him to experience the world. by improving his senses, he meant to improve his mind and experiences accordingly.
- sfumato, or blurriness – leonardo was willing to embrace ambiguity and paradoxes. in fact, these were common traits in his search for the truth: as he learned more about things, he was dragged deeper into ambiguity and towards the unknown.
- art and science – leonardo’s uniqueness partly stems from the balance he continuously tried to strive between art and science, logic and imagination. this is why gelb called him “the supreme whole-brain thinker”, someone who was able to see the world in all its facets, find unexpected connections between them and understand its intrinsic dynamics.
- corporality – leonardo was attracted to grace, beauty, and balance (which is reflected in his obsession for the human body and his interest in anatomy).
- connection – leonardo was aware of the interconnections that exist among all things and phenomena. he found in them a way to create new knowledge out of their interactions. gelb says that “one secret of leonardo’s unparalleled creativity is his lifelong practice of combining and connecting disparate elements to form new patterns”.
in the light of all this, i find it impossible not to notice a number of analogies between leonardo’s thinking and lean. first of all, in both cases there is a strong focus on the customer, who defines value according to his perspective. much like for a lean organization providing value to customers is the main goal, so leonardo felt the urgency to satisfy his “customers” – usually important patrons of major cities – to keep benefiting of their protection and sponsorship. even when he didn’t really believe in what they asked him to do and he’d rather work on other, more fulfilling projects.
another analogy with lean can be found in leonardo’s tendency to make sketches of his concepts and ideas. these sketches don’t have to be intended just as ways to visualize the concept and to improve it, but also to test it and investigate different alternatives in terms of mechanics, connections, or materials. this approach is akin to the lean concept of kaizen and, as suggested by tarelko in leonardo da vinci: precursor of engineering design, could be interpreted as a propensity for rapid prototyping, a common procedure in lean product development. this means the testing of his concepts was diluted throughout the design: testing and designing happened in parallel and their results influenced each other. it’s a simplified version of set-based concurrent engineering.
finally, leonardo constantly wrote notes on the side of the page. these could be reminders of how to develop a physical prototype, details that shouldn’t be forgotten, or insights for other important work. essentially, this is what in lean thinking and practice is now called job instructions and standardization – guidelines that are to be followed by whoever oversees a job once they are properly trained for it. in the same way, leonardo described the procedure step by step, for the sake of clarity and simplicity.
as i mentioned when i described the seven da vincian principles, leonardo’s projects were driven by experience, without relying much on theory. his invaluable life experience allowed his to even develop his own encyclopedia! he learned by doing, making mistakes, and understanding what didn’t work in each experiment and why. doesn’t this sound very lean to you?
bridging the gaps of lean implementations?
what surprises me the most about leonardo’s method is related to his learning process. as previously said, he was eager to learn, regardless of the topic. indeed, leonardo’s learning process embraced different fields and disciplines. similarly, set-based concurrent engineering promotes the development of “multidisciplinarity” in project teams instead of silo thinking, as a way to leverage synergies among different areas and functions.
as ever, leonardo was one step ahead. he could find correlations among seemingly unrelated topics and exploit them to create new knowledge in different fields. in other words, interdisciplinarity is one of the major tools that leonardo left us and that i think should be actively incorporated into modern lean practices. this would especially help us to address the gaps that exist in lean competencies management and development.
for this purpose, i developed a conceptual model – the comb model – that can be used to map and evaluate the available skills with the aim of integrating interdisciplinarity in the management and development of competencies within a company and boosting collaboration. as a matter of fact, four algorithms have been developed to efficiently assign the right resources to a project given its specific requirements and the available competencies. in a lean organization, this is turn into a powerful driven of synergies and mutual learning.
leonardo da vinci (or should i say leanardo?) gave a very relevant, although indirect and unconscious contribution to lean thinking. his ideas have greatly influenced scientific thinking and, to this day, inspire us to experiment, embrace uncertainty and problems, and make unexpected connections between elements of the reality around us that we consider unrelated. so aligned with lean is his way of thinking that i wouldn’t be surprised if one day, during a visit at a toyota plant, i saw a banner hanging from the ceiling saying: “leonardo was here”.
gianpaolo perlongo is a research fellow at politecnico di milano.
monica rossi is assistant professor at politecnico di milano in italy and a member of istituto lean management.