Critique of “Dealing with Lean’s Crazy Relatives”

What follows is a critique of the article “Dealing with Lean’s Crazy Relatives” by James P. Womack published on Planet Lean, 26 September 2016 (Note: bold text is in the original article):

Dealing with Lean’s Crazy Relatives

Comment: Disrespectful title. Blames people; should blame the process instead. Diminishes the important work of great contributors to the development of America, the creation of the discipline of industrial engineering, the science of process improvement, and modern industrial management. It ignores the fact that Taylor and Ford’s work were necessary steps on the road to Toyota’s Production System (but not Lean).

WOMACK’S YOKOTEN – The author reflects on how the legacy of Taylor and Ford still poses challenges to the lean movement, and why critics should move past a simplistic view of lean as mere standardization.

Comment: It is unlikely that critics will move past the legacy of Taylor and Ford. They are convenient excuses to assure the status quo is maintained.

Every family has a few members who are eccentric and problematic – like the proverbial crazy uncle locked in the attic. While this makes for fun conversations at family events – provided these folks don’t attend! – crazy relatives can become a real problem if their antics reflect on the whole family. In the lean movement my two candidates for crazy relatives are Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford, who continue to cause us trouble 101 and 69 years after passing from this life.

Comment: Poor analogy; mental health nothing to joke about. Taylor and Ford are not the ones causing trouble to the Lean movement. There are systemic contributors to the broad-based misunderstanding of Lean. These span social, economic, political, and historical factors, as I explained in Moving Forward Faster. The ills of Lean cannot rightly be attributed to two people, Taylor and Ford, as it is managers who struggle to put Lean (or any other challenging idea) into practice, driven by preconceptions that they do not question or are unable to destroy.

Frederick Taylor, most famous for The Principles of Scientific Management published in 1911, did one good thing – he focused on how people did their work. This was in contrast with big company practice in his time of managers paying piece rates to encourage workers to work as hard and fast as possible but without knowledge of or interest in how they actually did the work. Taylor wanted to change this by observing each job in an organization – typically in large manufacturing companies like Bethlehem Steel – to find out who performed the job the most effectively, what Taylor called “the one best way”. He then wanted to standardize this practice and direct everyone else to follow it while setting a higher production target to qualify for a bonus. He believed that everyone could make the bonus by following his standard work and everyone would be better off.

Comment: Taylor did many good things, not just one. This includes working tirelessly to improve relations between management and workers, and to assure that workers received a “square deal” (non-zero-sim, win-win outcome). Literature from the 1910s and 1920s contain detailed examples of twenty or so of organizations that successfully “installed” Scientific Management – but never in its entirety, as Taylor saw it (about the same number of organizations today to practice TPS or Lean well). It is not factually correct to focus on “the one best way,” which is how Taylor saw standards, because by about five years after Taylor’s death his followers began to speak of “continuous improvement” and “worker participation” in improvement. The “one best way” evolved.

What was wrong with Taylor’s approach? Just about everything.

Comment: Incorrect. Taylor’s work was the foundation upon which ideas and practices evolved. Large portions of Taylor’s work (and Gilbreth and others) – industrial engineering – remain as the foundation of TPS (and kaizen). It is inappropriate and unfair to judge Taylor’s thinking and actions then in today’s context, which benefit from 101 years of evolution in thought and practice.

Taylor was convinced that most workers hated to work and were therefore “soldiering”, pretending they were working as hard as they could. It was management’s job to make them work harder and this required a sharp distinction between those doing the work and the managers thinking about how to get them to do the work. Thus the need for the manager to actually understand the work by observing the work.

Comment: Taylor knew about “soldiering” first-hand, as he started as a machinist on the shop floor and worked his way up to executive. He viewed soldiering, which still exists today among both employees and managers, as greatly diminishing employer and employees’ economic and non-economic interests. In Taylor’s day, it made sense for an educated person to figure out how people should work. Don’t forget, in the late 1800s, some 90 percent of the U.S. population had less than a high school education, and therefore the English literacy and numeracy rate was very low by today’s standard. Taylor had the progressive view that management’s job was to make the work easier, not harder.

This meant in practice that the person doing the work the “best” way would effectively have his knowledge appropriated for use by everyone else without any reward. And everyone else would be mindlessly and grumpily following the instructions of the manager-expert based on the best way of the best worker. A great formula for mass misery.

Comment: The “best” way of doing the work was merely an alternate expression, then, for the word “standard.” In TPS, standards remain of fundamental importance. “Mass misery” was not the result in organizations where Taylor’s system was “installed” properly. It was the result in organizations where Taylor’s system was misunderstood and misapplied. In testimony to the U.S. Congress, Taylor said: “It ceases to be scientific management the moment it is used for bad.”

But Taylor didn’t stop there. He envisioned the work needed to create a completed product as a set of isolated, discrete steps, not as a continuous flow.

Comment: This is true. But implicit in Womack’s criticism is that Taylor should have figured that work should be made to flow continuously. At the time, the need did not exist because most markets were sellers’ markets, so batch-and-queue processing made perfect sense. Taylor did his part, and others who followed built upon his work which soon resulted in continuous flow (in final assembly, but not in upstream processes. An exception was engine manufacturing at Morris Motors in the U.K.).

So there was no need to align and tightly connect all of the work with everyone working at the same rate (known to us today as takt time.)

Comment: Frank George Woollard, who built on Ford’s and Taylor’s work, paced work according to a takt time in the U.K. automotive industry in the 1920s.

He concluded that process village layouts were fine if progress was monitored with accurate “travelers” and production schedules for each step (later automated as MRP) and that the really important task for managers was to make full use of the assets in each village, both technical and human.

Comment: That’s right. The reason why that made sense at the time is stated below.

This led to chronic overproduction to keep every machine and worker busy.

Comment: Back then (1880s through the 1930s), it was a sellers’ market. So, in general, batch-and-queue processing and overproduction were OK. When markets go from sellers’ to buyer’s, batch-and-queue production and overproduction causes many problems, as we all now know. That transition started to occur in the U.S. in the 1930s and in Japan after World War II.

To make the best of a bad thing, Taylor also invented standard-cost, absorption accounting, which judged managers on how fully they utilized labor and machines and then treated in-process inventories, no matter how unnecessary, as assets. And, as Dr. Deming pointed out, the focus on production without reference to the quality of the production was corrosive both to quality and to improvement.

Comment: Taylor did not invent standard cost absorption accounting. That distinction belongs to G. Charter Harrison. It was invented in relation to the sellers’ markets that existed at the time. It was a good way to account for costs in batch-and-queue production, and, as we all know, a terrible way to account for costs with flow production.

As for improvement beyond current best practice, this was to be done by experts making observations without consultation with workers or line managers and, in Taylor’s case, by external consultants. Indeed, Taylor invented the modern consulting industry as the first management consultant, in addition to being the first process consultant.

Comment: As noted earlier, in Taylor’s day it made sense for experts to think of new and better methods. But this approach changed soon after Taylor’s death. Yes, Taylor invented the modern management consulting industry. But, it’s worth noting the difference between Taylor’s consulting work (virtuous and financially unsuccessful) and that of amazingly successful “charlatans and fakirs” such as Charles Bedaux.

Oh, and finally, Taylor was a notorious cheat who doctored his results regarding productivity gains. (See Matthew Stewart’s The Management Myth and Jill Lepore’s “Not So Fast” in the [sic] New Yorker, October 12, 2009, for the lurid details.) Good grief. A really bad relative.

Comment: Irrespective of these citations (no doubt provided as biased confirming evidence), industrial engineering – Taylor’s invention – which is the basis for kaizen, has proven successful in dramatically improving productivity. In the right hands, and with the right mindset, industrial engineering also improves worker’s lives and their economic condition.

Henry Ford had no use for Taylor. He observed that the hard work of Taylor’s classic worker, Schmidt the pig iron handler, would be unnecessary if the pigs were put down in the right place to begin with. If there was no in-process inventory between production steps and if everything from the previous step was delivered directly to the next step there would be no pigs or anything else to lift. Moving from process villages to cells and continuous flow for each product family was the solution, leaving out many wasteful steps altogether. And in the early days, until the Highland Park complex was completed in 1914, Ford’s line managers and workers consulted intensively about the best way to do each task in Ford’s new flow production system by working backwards from the work itself, not by observing many workers to see who did the work the best way. But as his company grew in size, managers began to simply tell workers what to do and how to improve their work based on the analysis of industrial engineers. Workers were to keep their heads down and keep working – Taylor had come in through the back door.

Comment: It is not Taylor who had “come through the back door.” Managers telling workers what to do pre-dates Taylor – by thousands of years.

Ford was one of those folks who lived beyond his time in other ways as well, thinking that he knew what customers needed, specifically a completely standardized product with no options offered for years on end with no change. And he loved political systems that could supply the stability needed to make his system run smoothly. He was awarded medals for boosting industrial productivity by both Hitler and Stalin. And he was notoriously anti-Semitic and anti-labor and anti- a lot of other groups as well. In short his reputation would have been better served, the world would have been a better place, and lean thinkers would have had an easier time if he had been run over by a Model T in 1914 rather than living another 33 years to be become progressively more eccentric and destructive.

Comment: I think it odd, very unkind, and inappropriate to wish for anyone’s premature death. It is up to people like you and me to sort out the useful from the useless in one’s lifetime of work.

Today, we suffer from Taylor and Ford when critics rely on pattern recognition to brand us as “Taylorists” or “Fordists”, always focusing on the issue of work design and management. They see one dimension of one small piece of lean’s tool kit – standardizing individual jobs – as the whole. But they never ask about how standardization can work when work content varies (it can) and they never ask about the total process of value creation and how work and the management of work can be connected from end to end (they can) for the benefit of everyone, through shared inquiry about the work.

Comment: As I have noted in one of my blog posts, Lean movement leaders such as James P. Womack would be wise to embrace Taylor and Ford, despite their professional and personal imperfections (which we all have), rather than run away from them – which is likely impossible to do anyway.

This critique seems to be heard more frequently as lean thinking is applied to professional work, where “professional” for many has meant the opportunity to do their work in their own way with no one else knowing what they are doing.

Comment: Professionals, like most people, tend to seek or prefer zero-sum (win-lose) outcomes. Therefore, few will ask “how standardization can work when work content varies… the total process of value creation and how work and the management of work can be connected from end to end (they can) for the benefit of everyone, through shared inquiry about the work.” Those sound like exam questions in a university course on operations management.

I recently encountered a lovely example in a government organization that regulates drugs and medical devices critical to human health. The hundreds of doctors and PhD’s involved in making determinations about efficacy and toxicity worked in one-desk rooms behind closed doors. The senior management actually had very little knowledge of what they did, how the many steps were connected, why it took so long, and why many items authorized for use after years of analysis produced unanticipated side effects. I was called in for a second opinion after efforts to improve professional work by traditional management consultants had led to the development of standard operating procedures without actually understanding the work, KPIs for performance of each step, complaints of “speed ups”, and no improvement in results. I explained that managers and value-creators needed to begin by actually understanding the work and its impediments through intense dialogue.

Comment: This example illustrates the difficulty that people have – whether employees or consultants – in understanding work. We think we know what it is and how to improve it, but we do not. Shingijutsu is the best that I have ever seen when it comes to understanding work, and people, and improving both.

Professional work – that of the engineer, the doctor, the app designer, the manager too – is particularly important for lean thinkers to tackle because over time office and professional work have become a larger and larger fraction of the total work done in society. And in the future, as automation proceeds, touch labor in manufacturing and other manual work will probably go the way of farm work to become a very small part of economic activity. So if we can’t improve professional work we reach a limit, perhaps the reason the world’s most highly developed economies are showing only slight gains in productivity in recent decades despite many new technologies.

How can we deal with this problem? First, let’s make sure that we are not secretly Taylorists or Fordists ourselves. In my visits to companies I sometimes hear members of our community slipping into “I will tell them how to do the work and I will also think about how to do the work better” mode. Block that urge. It’s disrespectful to people and it leads to bad results.

Comment: Rather than associate ourselves with these two great pioneers of industrial management in a negative way, it is better for us to say that we should make sure we are not complacent and commit ourselves to learning by trying new things.

Then let’s be clearer with everyone we meet about the nature of lean. We need to explain that it always involves intense collaboration between everyone – line managers, front-line value creators (from assembly workers to surgeons), contributors from support functions – to deeply understand the work and then to rethink and align complex streams of work involving many people with different skills. The objective must be to produce a better result for the customer, better work experience for employees, and better performance for the organization, all by removing waste. We must help organizations achieve all three objectives or we haven’t done our most important work as lean thinkers.

Comment: I would put it this way: Lean must produce non-zero-sum (win-win) results for all stakeholders; Lean must do no harm. And, Lean must evolve from our current understanding of removing waste to a solution for any information flow problem, and, ultimately as a system for improving human health in organizations. My vision for Lean is simple: People leave work physically and mentally healthier than when they arrived.

The lean movement over 100 years has moved a long ways beyond our crazy American relatives, Taylor and Ford, by going to Japan and back and by adapting lean principles to practically every type of value-creating activity across the world. So let’s invite our critics to come along with us, beyond simple pattern recognition and kneejerk responses to the very notion of standardized work, to a higher level of understanding about the nature of human work and how to it make better.

Comment: Womack’s article fails to put distance between Lean and its antecedents, and does not overcome a common source of resistance to Lean (nor does it address dozens of other sources of resistance). His article succeeds only in further advancing misconceptions and mischaracterizations about Taylor and his work, rather than eliminating them. In terms of their professional work, Taylor and Ford were not crazy. Far from it. They worked diligently, over many years, to solve the most pressing problems in industrial management of the day. And we are following in their footsteps whether we like it or not. Finally, if Womack’s true objective is to separate Lean from Taylor and Ford, then he must also separate Lean from Toyota.

I invite you to learn more about Taylor’s life and work by clicking here. I hope you found my critique of Womack’s article to be insightful and educational.

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