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Harish Jose


Is Lean the Medium or the Message?

Why and how vs. what

Published: Thursday, March 21, 2019 - 12:03

Today I’m looking at the profound phrase of Canadian philosopher and a media theorist Marshall McLuhan, “The medium is the message.”

McLuhan noted that: “Each medium, independent of the content it mediates, has its own intrinsic effects, which are its unique message.... The message of any medium or technology is the change of scale, or pace, or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.... It is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.”1

The simplest understanding of the phrase, “The medium is the message,” is that it doesn’t matter what we say; it matters how we say it. However, this is a simplistic view. McLuhan’s insight was that any medium is an extension of ourselves. For example, the telephone is an environment, and it affects everybody. The smartphone, which is a further advancement of the telephone, has a much larger effect on us and what we do.

McLuhan realized that as we shape the media, the media shapes us. It is a complex interactive phenomenon. He said that it doesn’t matter what you print, as long as you keep going with that activity. Every medium helps us to do much more than what we can do physically. For example, McLuhan talked about language being an extension of our thoughts, and written language is a further extension of our speech. The ability to print replaced the need for us to be there physically, to extend our thoughts via speech. The ability to print had a profound impact on us much more than all printed media combined. The medium is the message simply because of the impact the media has on our social life.

McLuhan realized that media has an impact on our environment, and sadly, most of the time we are unaware of our changing environment. He noted that people in any environment are less capable of observing themselves than those slightly outside it. McLuhan explained this phenomenon with a catchy phrase: The fish did not discover water. He postulated that fish may not be aware of the water, the very thing their life depends on. Another way to look at this is by considering tweets from a politician. The tweets themselves are beside the point. The medium of Twitter has a far-reaching impact on our social media. McLuhan would ask us to look beyond the obvious content in a tweet and look at the social impact the medium is generating.

I wanted to view this idea in the context of lean. As lean leaders, we are trying to propagate the good messages of lean—“banish waste,” “respect for humanity,” “kaizen,” and others. We need to realize that the message is not the content, but the medium and the context of our actions. As the aphorism goes, our actions speak louder than our words. The medium, as extensions of us, reaches into our lives and shapes ourselves. We should concentrate on the medium to make a larger, favorable impact.

A good example is kanban. It’s a simple mechanism for a pull system, a paper slip that triggers production in a quantity that is needed at the time it is needed. However, the use of kanban leads to an awareness of the problems at the gemba, which leads to a need for a kaizen culture.

The ideas of revealing waste as it occurs, challenging ourselves to continuously improve by eliminating waste, and developing people as part of a value-adding function, are integral to any lean implementation. Understanding this complex, intermingled set of ideas can’t be forced by an edict delivered from the top down from the CEO: “Implement lean.” What is needed is an understanding of the medium and the environment. The medium of daily board meetings, for example, has an impact on the social aspects of an organization because of involvements at different levels. The medium of quality control circles, or daily or weekly kaizen groups, are another example. The content of fixing problems is not as important as the medium itself and the long-lasting impact it has by developing people to see wastes and improving their own ability to fix problems.

Sometimes we focus more on the content of the message, for example, “implementing lean,” without trying to understand what the need is that we are trying to address. McLuhan explained this focus on the content as “a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” We are focusing on the wrong thing. The top-down push for lean, Six Sigma, and other methodologies without changing the medium may not have a lasting effect. The medium itself must be changed to change the meaning and impact.

The medium is the message, and it is context-driven! If you want to create “change,” don’t just change the message. Change the medium itself.

Final words

It’s said that the typesetters mistakenly printed, “The medium is the massage” on the cover of McLuhan’s book.2 McLuhan loved the changed phrasing because it had additional interpretations that he appreciated. He said, “Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!”3

I will finish with an insight that McLuhan offered in 19641, that foreshadowed the medium of internet and social media:4
“Archimedes once said, ‘Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.’ Today, he would have pointed to our electronic media and said, ‘I will stand on your eyes, your ears, your nerves, and your brain, and the world will move in any tempo or pattern I choose.’ We have leased these ‘places to stand’ to private corporations.”

Always keep on learning....

1. McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Ginko Press, 2013. (First published in 1964 by McGraw-Hill.)
2. McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects.  Ginko Press, 2001. (First published in 1967 by Penguin Books.)
3. McLuhan, Eric. “Marshall McLuhan: Commonly Asked Questions (and Answers).” Estate of Corinne and Marshall McLuhan, 2019.
4. McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Ginko Press, 2013. (First published in 1964 by McGraw-Hill.)

First published Feb. 24, 2019, on Harish’s Notebook.


About The Author

Harish Jose’s picture

Harish Jose

Harish Jose has more than seven years experience in the medical device field. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Rolla, where he obtained a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering and published two articles. Harish is an ASQ member with multiple ASQ certifications, including Quality Engineer, Six Sigma Black Belt, and Reliability Engineer. He is a subject-matter expert in lean, data science, database programming, and industrial experiments, and publishes frequently on his blog Harish’s Notebook.



 The medium in the message are the same under electric conditions everything is simultaneous