If Javert were lean-thinking

August 29, 2011 § 2 Comments

So I have a job interview today for a process improvement position within my company. (In fact, I’ll be in the interview when this post goes up.) We subscribe to the “lean” method of process improvement: look at the entire value stream and eliminate andy steps that aren’t value adding. If they don’t add value, they’re waste.

I’ve been preparing a lot for this interview, so much that I can’t look around my daily life and not mentally place everything in a value stream map. I go to the doctor’s office, sit in the waiting room for two hours, and think to myself, This is not a very lean process! I wonder where the waste steps are.

Now, some of you may know and a lot of you will not know that I am obsessed with Les Miserables. I’ve read the book a few times but mostly I just listen to the musical over and over. The book takes a while to read and I can’t sing along with it. So recently, my great love of Les Miserables has been clashing with my brain overdoing process improvement and I believe I’ve found the source of Javert’s downfall.

For those of you who don’t know the story, Javert is the nemesis of Jean Valjean. (I’ll be pulling mostly from the musical version of the story, as it’s simply simpler.) He starts out as a prison guard where Jean Valjean is imprisoned and steadily moves up in the world, all the while chasing down and searching out Jean Valjean, who breaks his parole early in the story and who Javert sees as evil and in need of re-imprisonment.

To be fair, I should make my view of Javert clear from the start: I do not believe he is evil. I believe one of the reasons he’s such a compelling character is because he isn’t evil, but a generally good person doing what he sincerely believes is right–finding dangerous criminals such as Jean Valjean and removing them from the streets where they can hurt the innocent.

So he’s doing good work, and is rewarded for it through a series of promotions, but not in a very lean manner. Let’s take a look at it.

1. In prison, as a guard, he fell victim to the power of his position, as demonstrated in the now infamous Stanford prison experiment, and was quite cruel, believing that his cruelty may help to keep the evil criminals in line. This earned him a great dislike from the prisoners, and any who were let go and may have been thinking of breaking parole were sure to remember him. In fact, in the musical, Javert flat out sings to Jean Valjean, “And I’m Javert! Do not forget my name, do not forget me, 24601.” It seems to me that if you’re going to spend the next 20 years chasing down a criminal in hiding, it will only benefit your case for him to not remember what you look like.

1.2 On a slight tangent from that, he insists on calling Jean Valjean by his prison number, 24601. This number has five syllables while Valjean’s full name only has three. That seems like a waste.

2. When Javert has suspicions about Jean Valjean in Montreuil-sur-Mer, he doesn’t report it right away. Because he doesn’t report it right away, another man is accused of being the parolee. Javert didn’t pull when the evidence showed him what was right, and he pushed when someone else announced that, in fact, he hadn’t made a grave mistake in not acting on his instincts. This led not only to a waste of Javert’s time and effort, but also to a waste of court time, and it cost Montreuil-sur-Mer a mayor. (Then again, my first suggestion would’ve done that too.)

3. When Jean Valjean shows himself to the court, Javert doesn’t detain him and Valjean just leaves. This then makes it necessary for Javert to go all the way back to the house where Valjean is comforting Fantine, killing her of fright in the process (in the book). Then he gets his ass kicked by Valjean, and it’s all Javert’s fault for not planning that one better. You see, he knew that Valjean was super-strong. In fact, that was the last piece of evidence that made him write to the central office. You don’t face a man like that by yourself.

4. I’m skipping right over the whole recapture and re-escape that’s in the book, other than to say that, if memory serves me correctly, Javert didn’t investigate the site of the “death” himself and just took others’ word for it. Maybe it’s not so lean to travel all the way out there just to see for yourself, but if you’re going to make this one man your own personal white whale, it’s probably worth that time. Better to do it right than to wait another ten years before you can capture the guy.

5. When Javert saves Valjean from the ThĂ©nardiers, he doesn’t pause to take a look at the guy. In the musical, he’s back and forth about how much he knows of the criminals and how he’ll make them pay…so much so that Valjean is able to simply slip away while the policeman’s back is turned. A leaner approach of getting the pertinent information quickly so as to process the thieves wouldn’t’ve allowed Valjean that moment of escape.

6. Now I’m going to skip to the barricade. Javert shouldn’t’ve been there. Didn’t he hear Eponine yell “The police! Disappear! Run for it! It’s Javeeeeeeeeert!!!!” Obviously the poor people on the street know who he is. And when you’re talking poor people on the street, you can’t forget about Gavroche, which is exactly what Javert did. He saw a small person and figured there could be no importance attached to such a child. And that’s what just about got him killed.

7. The last point is, of course, Javert’s biggest downfall since it led to his death. He couldn’t change. A lean thinker needs to be able to look at the box, look outside of the box, turn the box into a penguin, and then teach the penguin how to fly. Javert was so stuck in his ways, so averse to changing who he was, that when the entire world showed him he was wrong, he simply left the world.

To summarize, being nicer and more forgetful would’ve been some easy process changes for Javert to take and wouldn’t eliminated a lot of the waste further down the road. In the case that the story still followed the same arc, Javert should have acted as soon as he saw something was up and not trusted others quite so much. He’s a smart fellow and should’ve relied on his own wits. Lastly, of course, Javert needed to be more amenable to change. Even if everything else stayed the same, this would’ve saved his life.

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