Posted by: Knightbird | October 16, 2011

Closing Your Mind to How Great Companies Become Great

In my advocacy for Lean Thinking, I have come across a number of arguments why Lean won’t work.

Anyone advocating for lean hears almost immediately that “we are not an automobile company.” Then I point out that Henry Ford and Alfred Sloane, both CEO’s of automobile companies, have heavily influenced our current management systems for all of our businesses. Then I point out that hospitals like Virginia Mason, Parke Nicollet and Theda Care have used Lean thinking to tremendous advantage. And then of course we all hear the cookie cutter medicine argument.

Another response I get is a reference to problems the company I mention has had. This is the “they have done one thing wrong so everything they do must be wrong.” Toyota itself experienced how quickly people can turn when the “Sudden Unintended Acceleration” (SUA) happened in 2009. All of a sudden, all of Toyota’s fine work was for naught. The Haters now had an argument for why the Toyota Production System doesn’t work. It’s a knee jerk reaction done by almost everyone. It is defensive, certainly. It protects us from thinking about our own poor management. It is offensive as well. Shift the focus to the one problem the company referred to might have had in the past, and the conversation shifts from your own deficiencies to those of the other company.

I made a reference to Boeing and it’s fine management and use of lean since 1989. Boeing is truly a remarkable company with an incredible lean culture. The problem referred to was the delivery date of the Boeing “Dreamliner” or 787. Boeing had 2 major problems with the Dreamliner, according to knowledgeable sources. First, it outsourced design and manufacturing almost totally. Rather than maintain control, as a lean company would, Boeing outsourced to shift risk. Second, Boeing worked with composite materials, which it had no experience with, for much of the Dreamliner.

But talking about the Dreamliner experiences ignores the successful company that Boeing is and why it got there—lean thinking.

So, I have to listen instead to reports of mediocre results, executive firings, marginal returns on investment and numerous excuses for why we are not doing well. And I have to listen to the representations that we are doing better than most of our peers. And I hear little to nothing about our customers, the quality of our work or the mistakes that we are fixing. It’s frustrating.


  1. Nice post. the Toyota SUA issue is not only knee-jerk and defensive, it turned out to be mainly media hysteria, as documented so well in Liker’s “Toyota Under Fire.”

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