Many of you have heard Art Byrne say: “about 95 percent of all lean conversions fail.” To that I’ll add: “about 95 percent of all CEOs don’t care about Lean.” Despite our awareness of these long odds, I, like most Lean practitioners, continue to look for opportunities to promote Lean in my workplace and in other organizations. We try to persuade our leaders to accept Lean as a comprehensive system of management and abandon current classical management practice. Unfortunately, most of us have experienced rejection — many times, because most leaders are satisfied with classical management and they have no interest in replacing it with Lean. The question is why? Why is it so difficult to sell Lean to top managers? This problem has been a focus of mine for 13 years. It took a long time to solve this problem (click here, here, and here). Having solved our old collective problem of “why 100% of CEOs are not Lean zealots” and knowing what I now know, I offer some advice, and then a challenge, to those who hope to influence CEOs to adopt Lean management. First comes the advice, which I give out of respect to Lean practitioners, past and present, who have struggled, and sometimes been sidelined, demoted, or fired for aggressively promoting Lean management.
The first, most important thing to do is understand your assumptions. You may assume that business is all about money. That is the appearance, but there are other things that are equally, and, at times, more important to CEOs than money. As a result, financial arguments for Lean (increased sales, profits, cash flow, etc.) usually fall flat with CEOs. Or, you may assume that business is all about people. To most CEOs, people (below VP or GM level) are variable costs, merely hired labor to perform a task for as long as the task is needed. As a result, people arguments for Lean (improved teamwork, learning, capability building, etc.) also usually fall flat with CEOs. For reasons that I explain in the above three books, nearly all arguments constructed for Lean fail to persuade CEOs. Persuasion is successful in the low single-digit percent of CEOs who have long had the basic foundational mindset of Lean management — that business is not all about money, and that people (stakeholders) are important to business. Consequently, they are receptive to financial, people, or other arguments in favor of Lean and willing to replace classical management. With these few CEOs you are safe in your advocacy for Lean. However, nobody knows a priori which CEOs possess the basic foundational mindset of Lean management, in part because they publicly say one thing but privately think another. There is no sin in doing that; it’s just how it is.
We try very hard to find the right argument; the one solution that will resonate with CEOs and make them become “Lean zealots,” under the assumption that all CEOs are persuadable. But that assumption is mistaken, and so we take a big personal risk when we advocate for Lean. Be very careful! When you make a pitch to a CEO (or any boss) for Lean management, you should assume they cannot be persuaded to throw away classical management and adopt Lean. More importantly, you should assume the CEO will perceive your argument for Lean management as a grave personal insult to their leadership and management skills. Please read the three books below to learn why promoting Lean management produces this dangerous result, and how you can avoid doing harm to yourself or your career.
- The Triumph of Classical Management Over Lean Management: How Tradition Prevails and What to Do About It
- Irrational Institutions: Business, Its Leaders, and The Lean Movement
- Management Mysterium: The Quest for Progress
Next comes the challenge. One of the things I learned from sensei Chihiro Nakao in shop and office kaizen is to put so many constraints on problem-solving that people (kaizen teams) are forced to be creative and innovative in their efforts to find practical solutions. These constraints are called “Mr. Nakao’s No’s,” Our collective new problem, in the words of Gregg Miner (Vice President Enterprise Excellence at Trane Technologies) is “how to make 100% of CEOs Lean zealots.” Below is a list of 34 constraints, “Dr. Emiliani’s No’s,” for this important next step in problem-solving:
- No financial arguments
- No people arguments
- No showing proof of Lean success
- No enlisting other CEOs to make the argument
- No money
- No equipment
- No enlisting consultants, trainers, educators, etc.
- No training classes
- No meetings
- No presentations
- No seminars
- No university classes
- No higher education degrees
- No computers
- No courses
- No videos
- No webinars
- No testimonials
- No executive offsite speakers
- No gemba walks
- No executive coaching
- No going golfing
- No books
- No magazine articles
- No newspaper articles
- No blogs
- No podcasts
- No A3 reports
- No club, society, network, or specialized organization
- No Lean simulations (Lego, paper airplane, tennis ball)
- No Lean games
- No Lean conferences
- No talking
- No status quo
Your challenge is to solve this next problem, “how to make 100% of CEOs Lean zealots,” under all 34 of the constraints listed. This will force you to be creative and innovative in finding solutions to this problem and divert you from the ineffective solutions that have been used for more than 30 years. You may wish to understand the solution to the prior “why” problem before moving onto the next “how” problem, by reading the three books listed above. They will advance your knowledge, establish the need for the 34 constraints, and (hopefully) energize you to work on the “how” problem. You should also define an achievable target condition.
Finally, there is an important thing for you to consider: Now that the first problem has been solved, “WHY 100% of CEOs are not Lean zealots,” is there a need to solve the next problem, “HOW to make 100% of CEOs Lean zealots?” What is the need? Who has the need? Why is there a need? What if there is no need? What are the consequences of that?