On being unreasonable

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Let's start by reading "person" into the George Bernard Shaw quote above and note that unreasonable in this sense is not about niceness; it is about how you find and react to the world. Unreasonable people are often unassuming and thoughtful and although they can engender strong reactions from reasonable people, this piece is not about misfits (I recommend 80's teen films for that topic).

A few weeks ago, I was talking to the charming staff at a car service centre in Cape Town as we waited for the first customer. At 7 am exactly, the door opened and the first car drove into the workshop. A sequence of events unfolded for three minutes, like a relaxed Formula One pit stop, to accept the car for service. Then the next car rolled in.

The team at this service centre worked like I have never seen people work before. Not so much hard, as smooth. I had to watch many more of these identical three minute routines to start to understand what the team members were each doing. And then over the next three hours we were shown how all the different parts of the service centre worked together, what one-piece flow really means.

This was, of course, a Toyota service centre, and I was here to see lean in practice. I have read many books on lean (I recommend This is Lean) and we incorporate many of its principles in how we work at Radiant Law, but when you go and see it done well, you can't unsee it. It is hard to explain the experience, but one of things that struck me was that a group of Capetonians, who would most likely describe themselves as perfectly ordinary, were doing extraordinary work in pursuit of perfection.

Wayne, the chief mechanic at the workshop, explained how the three-minute magic was done and pointed out that although they could do it faster, they had found that the customer then feels rushed. So three minutes it is, every time. His enthusiasm for what they had created over the five years of applying lean was palpable and I asked him when he had first felt proud. He told me a story of how a mechanic had come to him with a new sequence for fixing a car, having figured out on his own how a bunch of time could be saved by the way the work was done. That was for Wayne the moment of true pride.

Professor Norman Faull, who works with Radiant to teach us lean and who organised the tour, describes lean as "a system to create thinking people". As I left the service centre that day I thought that, generously, we are only nearing base camp at Radiant, eight years after we started. I also wondered whether lean is a system to create unreasonable people?

Although lean is described as having been created by Toyota through the Toyota Production System, the reality is that it wasn't created by a company. It was created by a few unreasonable people.

Henry Ford had previously revolutionised the car industry by unreasonably insisting that parts be consistently sized. This allowed the production line and was the exemplar of mass production, an unreasonable reaction to the craftsmanship that had inadvertently denied the many access to what we now consider basics.

After the war, Eiji Toyoda who ran Toyota understood that the constraints facing Japan meant mass production would not work. He empowered the deeply unreasonable Taiichi Ohno to create a whole new system of manufacturing. Interestingly, the two also created a meta-system as they did this - a way of thinking about creating value for customers that would be transposed later to services. Lean has top down elements (management-set targets), but as Wayne experienced, it also creates people who think for themselves, do not accept the status quo and find better ways.

On Friday morning, I was preparing for a call with an organisation that wanted to improve how it did knowledge management. I wrote down some principles we use at Radiant that I subsequently posted on LinkedIn.

The call was interesting. One participant didn't like my view that people often hoard knowledge (but want access to what others know). They explained that in-house legal teams were different and that everyone wanted to share knowledge. I wondered to myself, if that were true, why were we having a call about how to get people to share knowledge, and not about how to tame the flow? Someone mentioned that another part of the organisation was using a wiki. I bet myself dollars-to-donuts (I'm in NYC this week) that a single individual had set up that wiki.

This takes me to the last, and perhaps most controversial of the eight principles that I wrote down:

8. It's about individuals

The reality (that conflicts with what we would like it to be), is that a few people will make the vast amount of contribution and that often single-handed herculean efforts are what make the difference between useful and ignored systems. We encourage everyone to participate, but a few make all the difference. It is worth rewarding this.

My experience is consistent: you can have as many committees as you like, but nothing will actually happen until an unreasonable individual just goes and creates a useful, good enough, structure in which knowledge is collected. This is not really about power laws - the idea that the distribution of contribution (or as first-posited, fame) follows a curve with a long tail, with some contributing far more than others. The event of creation of wikis themselves, or any knowledge structure, is binary. Until someone just goes and does it, nothing will happen. You need an unreasonable person.

But as I thought further about this point after the call, I realised that I hadn't been clear enough and also had only told half the story. The part that was missing, although implicit in other points I made, is that after that unreasonable person has done their magic, you need reasonable people to adopt and improve it. Unreasonable people create state changes - reasonable people can exploit the new state. And if your culture is really good, perhaps the reasonable people will behave more unreasonably?

After the call, I went to docacon, the second Docassemble conference that was held at the Brooklyn Law School. Docassemble is an open source system for document automation. There are many document automation systems on the market (it feels like one is launched a week), but Docassemble is free (as in speech and beer).

Docassemble was created by Jonathan Pyle, an attorney at Philadelphia Legal Assistancethat provides free legal assistance to low-income people. Jonathan, who is one of the nicest, most thoughtful and modest people I have met, decided that the access to justice world needed a free platform to help deal with the crazy level of demand that they are struggling with. So he taught himself Python and just went and wrote it in evenings and on weekends.

Jonathan still works full time at Philadelphia Legal Assistance, but somehow manages to provide support, in the words of one user, "at service levels that no commercial vendor comes even close to". He isn't paid for this and just gives everything away for free. The software may not yet have the greatest editing interface (Community Lawyer and Documate are working on this), but it is more powerful than any of the commercial products that we have used. In a staggering act of unreasonableness, Jonathan has created something special.

Jonathan managed to pull this off because he built on many libraries that others, in their own acts of unreasonableness, also created and gave away. He also plays nice, helping any who ask on the Slack community group. And at the conference I watched other unreasonable people show what they had built on top (unreasonable people tend to congregate).

Michael Hassin, CTO of Community Lawyer, gave a brilliant talk exploring incentives and tools and how we could build the next layer of shared, codified knowledge. Radical collaboration in legal, anyone? Everett Pompeii of Clerical.AI showed what abstracted codified rules actually look like. Fifty-states-worth-of-eligibility-rules-for-legal-aid-as-an-engine, anyone?

On the other side of the Atlantic, a no-doubt brilliantly-run event was also happening, which was dominating social media through a marketing-miracle of participant enthusiasm. The themes were all so... reasonable. How could one disagree with bringing back boring, taking hype with a pinch of salt and wondering whether lawyers really need to code?

I regret my hubristic declaration on Twitter that I had been to a better conference. But I did meet a group of deeply passionate people, who were not accepting the disaster-zone of justice as a given, but instead were actually doing something about it. And they were building pretty cool things that actually solved problems. What unreasonableness!

I mentioned that you need reasonable people to adopt the new world created by unreasonable people. But there is a dark side to this. Unreasonableness is at first an affront to "as-is reality" and reasonable people who define themselves by that reality may take that affront personally. Even if done nicely and gently, unreasonableness can create deep discomfort in others.

Change can be snuffed out pretty quickly: it can be derided, it can just be ignored, it can vanish in noise. For a long time it will be contingent, until it is the new normal. It can die quietly as good, well-meaning and reasonable people focus on tweaking around the edges of the current reality.

But what if we can't solve the big problems by trying to improve the current legal industry? What if we have to create something new? What if the acts of desperation coming out of the access to justice world are giving us weak signals for what the future will look like?

Is this the time to be reasonable or unreasonable?

I would like to thank the wonderful team at Halfway Toyota Ottery and the equally wonderful Jonathan Pyle and the Docassemble community for their incredible generosity and to Norman Faull, Karl Blanks, Sol Irvine and the team at Radiant Law for all the stimulating conversations over the last few weeks about this topic (yes, you're all wonderful too).

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