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Which Side Are You On?

by Michael Ballé
May 6, 2014

Which Side Are You On?

by Michael Ballé
May 6, 2014 | Comments (8)

Peter Drucker invented modern management, was denounced for it by GM, and later recanted.

Management By Objectives is the hands-on reflection of Frederick Taylor’s breakthrough ideas. As Taylor himself stated: “In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.” Of course, Taylor’s ideas where neither simple nor simplistic – he sought to accelerate training by having engineers write detailed instructions for every job and make workers apply them. In doing so, he succeed beyond his wildest expectations and ushered a new form of corporate juggernauts that would probably surprise him were he still around to see it.

Modern corporations are built upon the idea that efficiency must be enforced through staff systems. Finance enforces cost accountability because operational people will spend like there is no tomorrow. IT enforces complexity management because things have gone so far out of hand no human could possibly deal with such complex systems. Human Resources are fast become a labor cost control function. Each functional director must convince the CEO that applying their preferred program, initiative, or system will force line managers in getting the results every one asks from them.

Line managers, on the other hand, have to get the job done and have to fight the fires due to the fact that no one ever understands fickle customer preferences or the technology to deliver products and services well enough. They have to comply with the endless demands from various corporate programs to make sure they... perform. If you can’t reach your objective and/or are behind on your action plans, no worries! Corporate will create a specific group to manage objectives and action plans better. Meanwhile, some poor guy somewhere has to get on with actually doing the job.

Drucker saw this earlier than most. He saw that our society was becoming a knowledge society where advantage lay not in information, which would become a commodity, but in the actual knowledge and wisdom to know what to do with this information. He also realized that you can’t force any one to learn. Learning is a deeply human process involving curiosity, motivation, exploration, and the space to think and experiment. It requires great teachers. It cannot be reduced programmatic solutions, either. It needs air to breathe. 

Corporate functions were invented on the Taylorist notion that engineers devise the best system which is then taught to assembly line workers. As far as it goes, it makes sense, but what applied to immigrant manual labor in the late nineteenth century hardly applies to our reality now. 

Lean shows there is a different way. By challenging and supporting line management (sales, engineering, production, procurement) to solve their own problems and learn first hand, it offers a method to solve the problem framed by Drucker. A lean system is, just as Taylor intended, a learning system, but the learning theory is radically different. It’s based on developing every person’s kaizen mind, not asking them to thoughtlessly apply a best practice that was invented far from their real world. It’s about genchi genbutsu, kaizen, and respect.

Why does all of this background matter? Lean programs can easily become one more Taylorist weigh around operational managers’ necks. Lean programs with prescribed solutions to obtain specified results are nothing better than another corporate system intended to squeeze line managers into delivering results. Compliance matters more than competence. Unfortunately, every company’s processes are perfectly adapted to their current level of performance. Superior competence delivers superior results, not compliance. 

As a lean adept, which side are you on? Are you supporting line managers in learning from facing their own challenges and solving their own problems? Or are you pushing their heads under water by adding kaizen blitzes, 5S, VSMs, roadmaps, and maturity audits to their already overburdened work day? Are you looking at business results as a reflection of the quality of your help? Or are you whispering in the CEO’s ear that if only they had complied more willingly to your instructions, results would be forthcoming?

As Drucker saw, “knowledge has to be improved, challenged and increased constantly, or it vanishes.” The goal of continuous improvement is… continuous improvement. Are you in? 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  culture,  history,  management,  musings
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8 Comments | Post a Comment
Martin May 06, 2014
Great article. We are still using immigrant manual labour, by the way. Especially in places like Toronto, new immigrants make up a large percentage of the work force. Lean initiatives are harder, since employee engagement is more difficult due to language. But Lean still holds true, since these employees are coming up with great ideas.

Now we just have to change the mind set of the mid-level managers and supervisors. And explain that all this data collection and visual management is a tool for them, rather than an additional task.   

Reply »

Michael Ballé May 06, 2014
Thank you, good day on the gemba today, in a construction company where a lot of the labor comes from all around the med. The project management team had a strategy for safety, quality, flow, integration of subcontractors and showed us some clever technical innovations - their productivity is higher than any project has ever achieved. It's great to see how far teams can go when they've got the autonomy and when support functions actually... support.

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Tim Dixson May 06, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Best article I've read on LEI's site since signing up. Very concise. Put the silos behind the streams, not in front.  I view Lean like a marriage... you can't "fake it til you make it"... you have to actually want it, believe in it, and in the end, roll up your sleeves and do the hard work that has to be done to make it work.

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David Lowe May 07, 2014
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Liking the sentence "Lean programs can easily become one more Taylorist weigh around operational managers’ necks" - I can't believe how lean/agile "professionals" I meet who are dogmatic and push approaches onto people.


Nice article.

Reply »

Lyndis May 12, 2014
So when does robust planning, monitoring and reporting of Lean activity veer into Corporate Compliance?

What about programmes which only exist if they can achieve a certain percentage of budget cuts over a given period?

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Ghassan Saleh May 13, 2014
What a great article, congratulations!!
I look forward to read your future posts.

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Michael Ballé May 14, 2014

Thx guys,

When I discovered lean twenty years ago, I witnessed a way to improve processes by getting people to better work together to produce more value whilst generating less waste. This, I saw, required a lot of ingenuity but more than anything else, better relationships forged out of solving issues together, across functional boundaries.

I never expected the lean movement to get this big. I never saw coming either that lean would become common place and taken over by process reengineering from the inside (and I wrote a book about BPR back in 1995, so I should have known) under a new name. And of course, consultants sell to staff directors and are external enforcers hired to apply "best" processes and magically squeeze productivity out of the business. Taylorism rules and it has absorbed much of what people call "lean".

The unspoken aim of BPR is optimizing processes and "standardizing" them (read rigidifying) with the IS system. The unspoken aim of lean is that continuous improvement is... continuous improvement. No process is every finished, because as people grow, they'll find waste to take out, opportunities to add value and as they get alon well they'll invent better processes as they go.

I feel strongly that the lean dream is very different from the taylorist dream, but if we don't create a viable alternative by speaking out, showing cases, writing it up, the taylorist reversal to the mean will win the day in the end.

Reply »

Matt McColley May 15, 2014

You have to know yourself and be at peace with you strengths and weeknesses to truely go to the place.

Many feel inferior, because they don't really understand what's going on out there.  Many are not comfortable with this feeling, so they either dismiss what's happening out there as grunt work for knuckle draggers and thus not worth knowing.  Or they decieve themselves to think that a cursorary "walk through" understanding is all that is required.  After all, if it was rocket science, they'd be wearing spiffy slacks and shoes and working in an air conditioned office.  Woudln't they?

I've been telling my engineers and designers for years to get their butts out on the shop floor and see for themselves whether their idea will work or not.  We all ware jeans for a reason... we are "hands on" engineers.

I tell this to all the new candidates that I interview, and with few exceptions, they like the idea.  They really do want to understand what's happening out there.

Matt the Tekton

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