Embrace Ugly

As best as I can recall, I’ve never coined a phrase with any staying power.

Until now.

And, my phrase has been purposely captured on a T-shirt, by someone other than a close relative. It’s not quite like having my words recorded indelibly in marble and situated in the Parthenon, but I’ll take it.

Enough gloating, what’s the phrase and what is its etymology?

“Embrace ugly.”

It’s a term that I have used frequently with a particular client. Frequently - as in multiple times per day, even multiple times per hour. I repeated the phrase, not only because of its self-entertainment value (yes, I do that), but more importantly to break the client’s paradigm.

You see, they were (note the past tense) chronic and debilitating perfectionists.

Now, striving for perfection is part and parcel of Lean Thinking (by way of Womack and Jones). The Lean Enterprise Institute lists the fifth step, “As value is specified, value streams are identified, wasted steps are removed, and flow and pull are introduced, begin the process again and continue it until a state of perfection is reached in which perfect value is created with no waste.”

However, the intent is to aggressively pursue continuous improvement – by frequently and rigorously spinning the PDCA (plan-do-check-act) wheel.

Perfectionists however have a very difficult time getting around the wheel and, in essence, missing the benefits of failing faster. Perfectionists tend to have their own version of the wheel, something like PPPPPDDDDD, or Plaaaaaaannnnnn, then Dooooooooooo. “C” and “A” are, often accidentally and ironically excluded from the perfectionists wheel.


Because after investing so much time planning and then investing in the perfect “Do,” (impossible, by the way) there is little time or money or will left to make meaningful adjustments. The victims (a.k.a. stakeholders) are often doomed to a life with less than optimal fixtures, equipment, facilities, etc.

How many times have you seen expensive underutilized stainless steel equipment, nicely laminated work surfaces that workers do not like, pricey, oversized extruded aluminum workstations, and flashy, but useless tooling? Stuff that unfortunately was not designed or developed with important things in mind like takt time, footprint, PM’s, flows (of people, materials, supplies, information, tooling, etc.), visual control and line of sight (i.e., can you see over and around it easily?), ergonomics, scrap, etc.

While lean folks apply 3P (production preparation process) concepts like 7 different ways and seek to down-select to the top three or so and then trystorm their way into the best using sub-scale and full scale models made of cardboard, plywood, and PVC, perfectionists are machining or building the perfect design in expensive materials.

In short, lean folks embrace ugly. They revel in trystorming, in learning, in rapid PDCA. Ugly is synonymous with the quick and the dirty.

Which is exactly why I kept repeating, “embrace ugly,” until my friends were repeating the same and then finally breaking away from the suffocating, expensive, lethargic legacy of perfectionism.

…and now, they’re wearing the words on their shirts.


A couple of quotes:

“Quick and dirty is better than slow and fancy.” - Taiichi Ohno

“A good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented at some unspecified

time in the future.” - General George S. Patton


Related posts: Kaizen Principle: Be Like MacGyver, Use Creativity Before Capital!, Lean Space – Some Thoughts and 10 Questions

There are 8 Comments

markrhamel's picture

Hi Robert,

Thanks for your comment and the great points.

Lean is a battle, actually more like a never-ending war...

Best regards,

markrhamel's picture

Hi Mark,

Thanks for the comment and the excellent quote.

Stamina is definitely a major factor. We live in such an instant gratification culture, that we can forget that hard work counts. That's another reason why the program of the month thinking continues to survive - the never-ending search for the silver bullet.

Best regards,

Robert Drescher's picture

Hi Mark

Congratulations if you can get perfectionists to lighten up and accept less than perfect you have had a big win.

I truly feel sorry for the perfectionists trying to come up with perfect plans, it cannot be done just to many unknown variables we can never control. That is the reason Toyota would tell you that planning is a great exercise, but plans they create are useless the moment they are done. People forget every major military leader that won had a great plan, but most of their actually planning occurred after the battles started not before. It is not till you actually do that you will ever see many of those unknowns, when you see you make adjustments and try again. You have to keep doing that tell it is over, hopefully for a good business that should be never.

markrhamel's picture

Hi Cristina,

Thanks for your insightful comment.

I believe that there is always a place for "proportionate" problem-solving rigor combined with a mix of challenge, courage (facilitated by leaders who know that organizations learn from failure), and employee creativity. 3P calls for its practitioners to think and do with the openness and creativity of the 12-year old's mind - for good reason.

Best regards,

Mark Welch's picture

Great post, Mark! Another relevant quote I've heard, and I can't recall the source is, "Don't let best get in the way of better."

Another reason I think the PPPPPDDDDDD.....s.....a..... phenomenon appears is that in an event team members become exhausted after a few days and they'd like to believe that with their first or second PDSA iteration they're going to knock it out of the park. When they realize they didn't, and there is more room for improvement, they often become discouraged, which is normal (I don't say this to be critical). But, it reinforces the notion that lean is hard work, and before committing to a lean journey they need to give it some deep thought.

Cristina Musar's picture

I studied briefly the decision making process for selecting improvement actions among people involved in process continuous improvement. Most of them declared that they take decisions almost always in an analytical manner - so by doing a lot of analysis, planning, and monitoring, therefore avoiding to act intuitively.
I think one limit of continuous improvement approaches is the emphasis put on data, facts, measures, analytical tools, etc. vs. the disregard on intuition and fast thinking (seen as in the book of Kahneman about slow and fast thinking).
So I think that it's time now to challenge the solely valid way indicated to pursue perfection - by allowing people to rely on their skills, including intuitive skills for solving problems. regardless the beauty or ugliness of the solutions.

James Lawther's picture


I like the point about embracing ugly.

People don't like imperfection.

But I think their is a bigger sin than avoiding imperfection, which is to ignore it and pretend it doesn't exist.

My old boss once told me "you need to 'fess up to get better".

So maybe we should "fess up and embrace ugly"


markrhamel's picture


Thanks for the comment. You raise a different perspective on the embrace ugly theme, but I think that you are exactly right.

Folks don't like imperfection, especially if their own (personal, team, department, values stream, organization, etc.) is discernable to all. This is where a culture of humility and courage is so important - the humility to admit reality (it is what it is) and the courage to "fess up," because leadership knows that problems are treasures.

Best regards,