Engage or Ignore?


During most private Zoom conversations over the last three years, people ask me: “So what do they [e.g., Ballé, Jones, Liker, Rother, Shook, Womack, etc.] think about your work? What’s their reaction?” They are referring to these four books (especially the first book):

My response is: “I have no idea. We have either never met or met briefly a decade or more ago, have never spoken or have not spoken in many years. As far as I know, they have ignored my work.” They are surprised to learn this and find it unbelievable that we are not having regular conversations or that these good people have ignored my work.

This poses an interesting question: How and why do the elite Lean movement leaders ignore these works?

First, I don’t know for certain that elite Lean people have not read the above books (have not met, have not spoken, etc.). Second, I take no personal offense at my work having been ignored by them – c’est la vie! Third, this phenomenon is nothing new. Groundbreaking work in varied realms are often ignored by the elites in any given field (example). Fourth, and most important, this phenomenon is fascinating in terms of the social science! So let’s explore some of the interesting mechanisms by which this occurs. 

  • Prior Assumptions. Once assumptions are made about a particular thing such as Lean management, and after which a body of work has been developed around those assumptions that leads to global notoriety (for persons and thing), it becomes difficult to break free of those assumptions. There is an expected loss of status, power, prestige, income, legacy, etc. In other words, vested rights and interests will likely be compromised if such work is recognized.  
  • Groupthink. Anyone who does not think the same way (i.e., bounded by prior assumptions) as those with global notoriety think, are less worthy or not at all worthy. Consequently, their work, resting on different ideas and assumptions, expressed in different ways, is not considered. Conceptualizing the problem differently than the established norm may make it difficult for them to even comprehend the range of discourse that I offer.
  • Transcendence. Elite Lean movement leaders view Lean management as transcendent, meaning, there are obvious and eternal truths. These truths lie in the assumptions and therefore can never be challenged in any coherent manner. So why even pick up the book? Any discourse that is not based on Lean’s obvious and eternal truths is not worth reading.
  • Directionally Inconsistent. Approaching the problem from different directions – and not the singular direction of blaming long-dead Frederick Winslow Taylor for leaders’ lack of interest in Lean management – violates the established causative norm prescribed by elite Lean movement leaders. Their status, specialized knowledge, and insight trumps all other explanatory arguments regardless of novelty, merit, or accuracy.
  • Boosterism. Any arguments that do not promote Lean management, no matter how well-meaning, are seen as detrimental to Lean management itself as well as to those invested in Lean management. Arguments that expand the understanding of phenomena that retard the advancement of Lean management are not seen capable of opening new pathways for advancing Lean management. Instead, they are seen as closing pathways for advancing Lean management. Lean’s hedonistic foundation – the pleasure of learning, the pleasure of teamwork, the pleasure of eliminating waste, the pleasure of wealth creation, etc. – glosses over the many and great difficult organizational, technical, and psychological realities that accompany Lean practice. Hence the need for unending boosterism and ignoring anything that undercuts boosterism.
  • Form of Discourse. The form of discourse in my writing contains elements of strong tone, non-conventional language, bare facts, and satire. It is a “tell it like it is” form of writing, one that displeases or shocks the good, right, and beautiful world of Lean management. It is a world that disdains the questioning of accepted causality and wisdom. My books do not conform to the accepted style, form, and substance of works in canon of Lean literature.
  • Wrong Problem. Undertaking a 15-year effort to deeply understand and answer why leaders resist, reject, or ignore Lean management may be perceived as the wrong problem to solve. The problem to solve, it seems, is to discover better ways to extoll the many virtues of Lean management. Doing so extends the Lean brand and supports the legacy of elite Lean movement leaders. Doing otherwise violates rules of social conduct: good manners, etiquette, decorum, fealty, and the like. Consequently, independent thinking must be rewarded with ostracism. To do the opposite, to confront the substantial arguments I put forth, publicly (in social media) or face-to-face (at conferences or via Zoom), is to acknowledge their worth and, simultaneously, weaken one’s status for not having discovered such answers.
  • Intangibles. Embedded in each of the above items, hidden from view, are differences in core values, moral beliefs, and worldviews. This leads a few to literally hate me personally for the work that I have done — meaning, what I represent. Not surprisingly, these feelings provide incontestable justification for ignoring both me and my work.

These factors combine to make my work eminently ignorable in the eyes of elite Lean movement leaders – at least publicly so. By doing this, they make the informed choice to subject themselves to charges of hypocrisy in relation to values that they have espoused for decades: thinking, learning, respect for people, ideas, continuous improvement, etc. Truly, there is no sin in that. But, it is a consequence that may become attached to their legacy, to greater or lesser extents and for better or worse.

Uncomfortable challenges to Lean are considered to be outside the realm of Lean. Disdain for revelatory work exposes entrenched ideological positions and vested interests. One can say that this boils down to the ancient, unseemly and dishonorable practice of speaking truth to power. Whatever truth is offered, is irrelevant in terms of any need to confront or evaluate it. This is a system problem, socially constructed, not a people problem. The social construct is safely parochial to assure that its orthodox discourse remains closed and undisturbed. Who benefits from that?

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