Appearance vs. Reality


Reflecting over the past four decades, I have had some interesting experiences with how people have viewed me in relation to my professional work. Somehow, and remarkably consistently, people formulate their views based on an imputation of motivations and intentions of professional goals and personal attributes that, time and time again, have proven to be wrong. I don’t know why this happens, but I accept that it does.

For example, when I worked in industry, people thought I was a self-interested ladder-climber, someone who had eyes on becoming vice president in the big company I worked for. Yet, had they paid attention to the reality of the situation, they would have seen that I was the rare servant leader in a company full of command-and-control leaders. I took on progressively more responsible management roles in engineering, manufacturing, and supply chain management because I was curious and wanted to learn about business. I left industry after 15 years because I did not want “the system” (classical management) to turn me into type of person that I did not want to be. Nor did I feel a need get to the top level of an organization.

When I left industry for academia, people again thought I was a self-interested ladder-climber, someone who had eyes on becoming a department chair, then Dean, and later Provost. I had no such interest. What I wanted to do, and what I truly appreciate about the job of being just a professor, is to be able to follow my interests wherever they may go. And over the years, as one can tell by my publication record, my interests have varied widely across many disciplines. For me, it was the perfect job after learning first-hand the “real world” of business, classical management, and Lean management. The real world experiences made me a more discerning researcher in academic work, resulting in writing that people in industry easily connect with.

Then, in the context of Lean, very few people know me well because I don’t get out much. I work for a state university and they do not like faculty to engage in non-university activities. Teaching requires me to be present each week, which therefore precludes doing things such as consulting. And I teach year-round to help students reduce the time to complete their academic program and graduate (on-time or sooner) so they can get on with their lives. Therefore, most people know me by my writing, especially my posts on social media. That is a great way to formulate inaccurate opinions of someone. When I Skype with people who know me only from my books or social media, they often end the conversation by saying something like: “You’re much nicer than I thought” or “I was afraid to talk to you but you seem like a nice guy.” Others start the conversation by saying: “It means a lot to me to be able to speak to someone famous like you.” I thank them for their kind words but humbly decline their accolade. I am just a hard worker trying to understand the facts, that’s all.

I realize that people cannot figure out what to make of me given the many seeming contradictions: scholar and pundit, concerned and aloof, serious and entertaining, easygoing and difficult, team member and independent contributor, etc. I am an empathetic person who cares deeply for the lives and well-being of workers. Yet I am stern when it comes to critiquing leaders, management practices, and business because people’s lives and livelihoods depend on it. I am a great supporter of TPS and Lean management, but not afraid to criticize something or someone’s work (sometimes harshly) when I feel it is warranted. I love progressive management and remain dedicated to its success, but I also understand the myriad difficulties business leaders have with Lean management which cause them to resist or reject it.

Some people think I have a big ego. That can be the appearance, but the reality is far different given my deep concern for whether I have done good work. My books have never been very popular, and my work is mostly ignored, so that surely does not feed my ego. People think that I am driven to win arguments to satisfy my ego. Argumentation is an interesting challenge in that it requires one to apply their critical thinking skills. But argumentation is also tedious, annoying, and time-consuming, and winning arguments does not stoke my ego. Strange as it may seem to some, I don’t care about winning arguments. That is an impossibility in the highly fractured world of Lean management. Winning has never been a motivator for me. My focus is modest: learning and sharing what I learn. My role is to observe, do research, and provide useful information that people can apply to help advance progressive management today or 50 or 100 years from now. My work is other-regarding, not self-regarding. Humanism has always been very important to me.

And in my home and work offices, never have there been diplomas hung on the wall, nor awards, nor framed pictures of myself, nor enlargements of book covers, nor shelves filled with books to display my erudition, or any other self-regarding propaganda. These relics mean nothing to me.

When someone writes as much as I do, you would be correct to assume that I am an introvert, which is commonly misinterpreted as having a big ego. I do not serially attend conferences, delight in networking, seek the limelight, or continuously post pictures of my smiling face on social media. One perennially dyspeptic person (shown in the video with cigar) speculated on social media that I was upset to have not be selected as the leader of the Lean Enterprise Institute — yet another person who wrongly thinks I yearn for a top job. No, I am ecstatic nobody called me. If they did, I would wonder how they could have so misjudged me. Relatedly, some people are afraid of me or view me as a threat. That is unfortunate, but so be it; judgments have been rendered and are unlikely to change.

The reality is that the advancing Lean management is messy, but, overall, in a good way. People and organizations try to make progress in their own unique and ever-changing ways. We fill in gaps only to expose new ones as we work towards trying to create a better future for humanity. It is a decentralized, and thus disorganized, effort. From that comes a lot of nonsense as well as much wider range of new ideas and solutions to persistent problems. Whether this can produce the desired results on a larger scale and for the long-term has yet to be seen.

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