Leaders Don’t Need “The Full Result”

Mark Graban recently hosted James P. Womack on his podcast titled: “Jim Womack’s Observations and Reflections on the Evolution of Lean.”

Womack Graban Podcast

Dr. Womack made some interesting comments that are worthy of analysis. Let’s begin here:

So [it is] quite amazing to me that the book [The Machine That Changed the World, published in 1990] says very clearly, if you really want to get the full result, you need to do the whole system. And nobody got that… So it’s interesting what people hear, and the same thing with the Lean Thinking book, that what they heard was all tools… So that’s one of the curious things that has happened on this journey.

James P. Womack, podcast minutes 11:06-12:00

What Womack is actually speaking about is the de-evolution of Lean, not the evolution of Lean. Had it been the evolution of Lean, companies would have gone from classical management, batch-and-queue production, to a whole new system of flow production called Lean, and there would be evidence that the capability of the system would have evolved (improved) over time to become more capable as market, economic, and other circumstances changed.

Womack is clearly disappointed about the gap between the new management system that he has long advocated for organizations to change to, based on Toyota’s management system, and the lack of success in achieving that over the last 35 years. Yet despite the books’ emphasis on changing the management system, the Lean Enterprise Institute, starting in 1999, began selling Lean tool books and Lean tool training to great success.

But there is more to it than that. With reference to “…if you really want to get the full result, you need to do the whole system. And nobody got that… what they heard was all the tools”, Graban did not pursue further inquiry into that very important point — “nobody got that.” Why did nobody get that? And why did they only hear the tools? What are the causes of these outcomes? There was no insight into those important questions, no analysis, and no A3 report. But later Womack offers this helpful suggestion:

Everybody should read Ed Schein’s organizational culture and leadership books written a long time ago. I think he just finished the fifth edition when he died about 15 months ago. But he makes this in any culture, he says, look, there are artifacts, which is to say practices that people follow, and then those are justified by principles, but then underneath it are basic beliefs of what people really feel about how to deal with people, what’s possible, and so forth.

James P. Womack, podcast minutes 44:32-45:03

Edgar Schein, a business theorist and psychologist, was a career academic whose focus was organizational behavior. Unfortunately, Womack does not make clear how reading Schein’s book, first published in 1985, will help anyone “get the full result.” Sure, there are principles, practices, and beliefs that impair people’s desire to change the management system to something better. But what are they and how does that relate to Lean? There is no discussion of that in Graban’s podcast or elsewhere by Womack, so Schein’s book must not be relevant to the problem at hand.

There has been a lot of research since Schein’s book was published in 1985 that is specifically focused on why leaders have little or no interest in changing the management system. Womack makes no mention of that large body of work. My research provides more comprehensive and satisfying answers than the common organizational behavior perspective. It takes a multidisciplinary approach and explores the problem from six different angles: status, rights, and privilege; irrationality; secular spirituality, aesthetics, preconceptions, and workmanship. Despite its relevance to Lean management, Dr. Womack seems to be unfamiliar with any of the six books I have written on the topic or research by others.

Womack goes on to say:

And so I would say we’ve done an earnest job of trying to acquaint everybody everywhere with the toolkit. Everybody everywhere. And yet you see things all the time that they just didn’t either get the principle or they didn’t get the basic beliefs. 

James P. Womack, podcast minutes 45:03-45:21

Indeed, everyone knows the toolkit. But did they not “get the principles” or “basic beliefs.” Part of the key to helping people get the basic principles and beliefs are to deliver and improve a consistent message over time. Womack et al. have given an inconsistent, mixed message with respect to systems and tools, with scant evidence of improvement of that message over time.

In contrast, I quickly and enthusiastically share what I have learned with others, or when in my research I discover unheralded managers from bygone eras such as Robert B. Wolf. I have done this consistently for over 25 years because it is important to think, learn, improve, keep up-to-date, help people, and share information in a timely manner (do “Just-in-Time” and “Respect for People” ring any bells?).

To “get the principles” or “basic beliefs” of the new management system will not come from Womack’s work. This is no easy task given the longstanding disdain that Womack has had for Toyota-style kaizen. It seems he does not respect the virtuoso skills, knowledge, and wisdom of preeminent people such as Chihiro Nakao, nor their significance in terms of imparting basic beliefs and principles to kaizen participants. And he incorrectly attributes the lack of follow-through post-kaizen to the kaizen consultants, not the company.

Womack goes on to say:

We just need to do a little reflection on why it’s been so hard to get our management thinking and our attitudes to our people to move in the direction that actually makes it possible to consistently reduce waste, reduce mura, remove muri and make a better world. That’s what we need to do.

James P. Womack, podcast minutes 50:25-50:44

Doing a little reflection will not lead to the discovery of causal explanations for why leaders resist, reject, or ignore Lean management. If “a little reflection” were all that was needed, the people who pioneered Scientific Management would have solved the problem almost 100 years ago. So would any of the advocates of progressive management since then and prior to 1988 when Lean came along. So, Womack’s prescription for improvement, reflection, is not sage wisdom. It is, in fact, useless. When someone ignores relevant research, purposefully or not, “a little reflection” is the most that can be offered.

But more than that, Womack’s view, as captured by the above quotes, reveals an ignorance of how top leaders think and what they view as necessary — or unnecessary — for success. The reality is that most top leaders do not want or need “the full result” to achieve personal or business success. The problem with Lean is that it corrupts classical management. For leaders devoted to classical management, Lean is just about everything top leaders do not want — except of course for some of the “Lean tools” that they direct workers to use. Lean tools are good, but nothing more. A partial result is good enough.

If I were Jim Womack, I would be disappointed too, even frustrated given the tone of the podcast. His vision nearly four decades ago of Toyota-like businesses in every industry has not happened at all, and it won’t happen with the current level of understanding about the problem. For a movement so focused on problem-solving, its long-time leader fails to recognize its greatest and most persistent problem — top leaders do not want to get “the full result.”

Womack’s lamentation reminds me of the words of philosopher Paul Virilio:

When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution. Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.

Paul Virilio,Politics of the Very Worst (1999)

When you invent Lean, you also invent Fake Lean — i.e., the partial result. Had a careful study of the Scientific Management movement been done decades ago, it would have revealed that the probability of a partial result for Lean would be 100 percent. Knowing that important information, countermeasures could have been taken long ago. Will countermeasures be forthcoming now? No, not if you follow Womack’s advice to “a little reflection.”

Saying all this, factual as it is, reflects my view, unlike some others in the Lean community, that no authority is beyond question. To many, that makes me a


Is that really what I am? Maybe do a little reflection on that.

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