Lean Blog — 507: Embracing Creative Tensions: Wendy K. Smith on Both/And Thinking and Lean Leadership

My guest for Episode #507 of the Lean Blog Interviews Podcast is Wendy K. Smith, co-author of the book Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems. She’s also one of the keynote speakers at this year’s AME (Association for Manufacturing Excellence) annual conference.

Episode page with video, transcript, and more

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Wendy is the Dana J. Johnson professor of management and faculty director of the Women’s Leadership Initiative at the Lerner College of Business and Economics, University of Delaware.

She earned her PhD in organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, where she began her intensive research on strategic paradoxes—how leaders and senior teams effectively respond to contradictory yet interdependent demands.

Working with executives globally, she has been a noted keynote speaker and teacher for audiences worldwide. Her research, published among the top journals in the field, has received numerous awards, including the Web of Science Highly Cited Research Award (2019, 2020, and 2021) for being among the one percent most-cited researchers in her field. Wendy lives in Philadelphia with her husband, three children, and the family dog.

In this episode, Wendy discusses strategic paradoxes and how leaders can effectively navigate contradictory yet interdependent demands. Our conversation covers practical examples from Lean Manufacturing and the Toyota Production System, highlighting how “both/and thinking” can lead to innovative solutions and improved performance. Wendy also shares the emotional and cognitive challenges of embracing paradoxes, offering insights into how organizations can create environments that support dynamic, integrative thinking. This episode is a deep dive into the nuances of leadership, organizational behavior, and the power of embracing complexity in problem-solving.

Questions, Notes, and Highlights:

  • What are strategic paradoxes?
  • The need or opportunity to break paradoxes?
  • Good examples of both/and thinking in different businesses?
  • Origins in lean manufacturing
  • Just-in-time but hold no inventory
  • High quality but also super fast
  • Focusing on both short-term and long-term?
  • Opportunities for startups to exploit new both/and thinking?
  • Process as a dirty word in startups?
  • We can’t vs. we haven’t figured it out yet?
  • Both/and focus on customers and employees?
  • Connections to Amy Edmondson and Psychological Safety?
  • The Dr. Brian Goldman TED Talk
  • Give us a preview of your keynote talk for AME? A teaser…

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