These pioneers of progressive management – Frederick Taylor, Frank Woollard, and Taiichi Ohno – have taught us much. But we have not learned all the lessons that we can from them. Far from it. In fact, we have yet to learn their most important lessons, one of which is the predisposition of senior managers to cherry-pick tools and methods developed by the pioneers to achieve short-term gains. This lesson was ignored, and so history has repeated itself.
We all agree that Lean tools and methods are very important, but we have yet to come to grips with the fact that with just the tools and methods, the best one can hope to achieve is more efficient batch-and-queue processing. Zero-sum (win-lose) outcomes will be prevalent, and flow, which requires much more than just tools and methods, will never be achieved. There is now a common view that Lean has realized some significant, albeit limited, success. Namely, that “We’ve won the battle of ideas on how to operate and improve processes” (1). Meaning, people broadly recognize that the tools and methods work and many people use them.
This was not, in fact, a battle, and there was nothing to win (but lots to lose). Managers hungry for better results have always gobbled up new tools and methods to improve productivity and cut costs. They love that stuff. The “We’ve won the battle…” characterization is off the mark and conceals the reality of our situation. Lean practitioners must always see reality as it is, to help assure that the PCDA problem-solving cycles they engage in reflect the right problem to work on.
The best that can be said regarding the spread of Lean tools and methods since the early 1990s is that we have not lost ground. However, it would be more accurate to say that we have actually lost substantial ground. If there was a battle in our era, we surrendered on day one sometime in the late 1970s. The battle, therefore, has yet to begin. Yet we have lost precious time and a huge amount of goodwill among the employees due to widespread zero-sum Fake Lean. Organizations rely on workers to recognize and solve problems every day, which they will not do if harmed by Lean.
The tools and methods used to improve productivity and reduce costs are to executives what salt, fat, and sugar are to dieters: irresistible temptations, but which can also cause great harm. Throughout the history of modern progressive management, executives have cherry-picked the tools to achieve short-term gains, usually at the expense of employees, suppliers, and communities. The pioneers were very troubled by this.
Frederick Taylor and his team were frustrated that executives did not adopt the Scientific Management system in its full form. Instead, they used only the parts they felt were appropriate to their current needs. There was also rivalry and bitterness between Taylor’s team and the legions of consultants that sprang up overnight claiming expertise, and who were very successful in selling senior managers only the tools of Scientific Management (1, 2). Among their biggest concerns were that improvements would be short-lived and the consistently negative outcomes experienced by employees.
Frank Woollard had this to say about the importance of achieving non-zero-sum (win-win) outcomes for employees and other key stakeholders (Principles of Mass and Flow Production, p. 180):
“Unless the eighteenth principle is satisfied the [flow production] system cannot reach full stature…This principle of ‘benefit for all’ is not based on altruistic ideals – much as these are to be admired – but upon the hard facts of business efficiency.”
Taiichi Ohno experienced the cherry-picking phenomenon first-hand when he introduced Toyota’s production system to Toyota’s suppliers in the early 1970s (NPS: New Production System, p. 153, 155):
“Companies make a big mistake in implementing the Toyota production system thinking that it is just a production method. The Toyota production method won’t work unless it is used as an overall management system… those who decide to implement the Toyota production system must be fully committed. If you try to adopt only the ‘good parts’, you’ll fail.”
The pioneers of progressive management saw their work as a battle to replace conventional zero-sum management in its entirety with a non-zero-sum progressive management system. That must be our battle too.
We still have much to learn from the successes and failures of these pioneers, who worked so hard to establish progressive management in organizations on a broad basis. Shame on us if we ignore them and claim a meaningless victory.