My Favorite Mistake

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For some reason, Mark Graban never interviewed me for his “My Favorite Mistake” podcast. It seems like he is not interested learning about in my favorite mistake (truth be told, he has long been one of my top haters 😡, so that’s why — don’t get excited, it’s nothing really). But perhaps you are interested to learn what my favorite mistake is.

Like any group or community of interest, the people associated with Lean management have developed a culture that is hierarchical in nature and whose anchor point is status — the individuals and companies that are prominent in Lean world. Because of their status, you surely know the social hierarchy without me having to provide names.

For most people, social hierarchy creates a condition that fosters invidious comparison between individuals and organizations, and emulation (imitation) to attain higher status. Along with that comes the need to seek the esteem of others and climb the social hierarchy. If successful, one’s higher status results in benefits as well as duties. Benefits include participation in special events and access to those at the top of the hierarchy. But with benefits comes duties that include various obligations to promote the people and work of those highest in status — often in obsequious ways. After some period of time, they come to realize that those highest in status are not the idols they one thought they were, and duties turn into burdens. Nevertheless, most people carry on the ruse because they want to retain their social and political capital and are unwilling to be publicly branded as imposters or traitors (though in private most people are well aware of who the hypocrites are).

Like it or not, the in-group, the upper echelon of the hierarchy, must follow certain rules. Conformity to group norms means the consistent expressions of accredited behaviors. Like most organizations, expectations are unclear, so one must learn the rules and behaviors by studying others. Many are far more devoted to that than the study of Lean itself, though they may not realize it because much of this (i.e., beliefs, rules, norms, behaviors, customs, etc.) functions in the unconscious realm. If raised to the level of consciousness, conformity will be rationalized as good and right based on similar situations that they have previously experienced.

Sycophantic behavior is de rigueur in social hierarchies because it assures a continuation of access, opportunities, and favors. It is the required etiquette to prop up the status of those at the top of the social hierarchy and to improve one’s ranking in the social hierarchy. The two go hand-in-hand. You will easily recognize this as the “mutual admiration club,” wherein even trivial accomplishments are hailed by peers and lackeys alike as substantial achievements, particularly on social media. “Respect for People,” a recent addition to Lean world, is often used strategically to both raise one’s social status or lower the social status of others. Given that status ranking is zero-sum, when one person rises in rank another must fall in rank.

The Lean community sees this social hierarchy as legitimate, despite talk of teamwork, humility, and reverence for Toyota whose leadership has long made great efforts to minimize status differences and focus on the facts. These important learnings have yet to take root in Lean world. Deference to those highest in status is almost universal and automatic. And so when an individual high in status or a company such as Toyota triumphs, Lean people make it their own triumph. Being affiliated with Lean is, itself, a way to raise one’s status by rejecting some (but not all) of the archaic values associated with classical management. From the viewpoint of the mass of leaders committed to classical management, the Lean community is a marginal or delinquent management subculture that has minor utility and little overall relevancy. Curiously, the quest for higher social status puts Lean people in a lower status rank in the view of most top business leaders.

Lean has been around long enough, since 1988, that these and other features have hardened into traditions, likely to its detriment, though one can never be totally sure of that. But we know that traditions die hard and usually lead to long-term dysfunction that compromises the ability to satisfy human needs as times and circumstances change.

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Caricature of a person low in status.

My favorite mistake was not succumbing to social pressure to conform to the culture of Lean world. I did not waste my time and energy on promoting and maintaining the social hierarchy of Lean world. I put my efforts into developing a deeper understanding of progressive management, its history and evolution, and analyzing the existential problems that Lean faces instead of supporting the rankings of those high in status and a subculture whose concerns still lie with Lean tools and venerating individuals and companies. It is the mistake that made me cultivate my own personal culture of learning and innovation.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that I am virtue signalling. In the context of Lean world, I am doing the opposite. I am displaying neither morality nor good character. It is simply a difference in perspective on what is important and what is not in the domain of progressive management. While I do not agree with the status-seeking behaviors prevalent Lean world, I have no interest in making a value judgment because, as I said at the start of this post, “Like any group or community of interest, the people associated with Lean management have developed a culture that is hierarchical in nature and whose anchor point is status.” I accept that as being the case. And don’t make the mistake to think in terms of rivalries or animosities. It is not a rivalry when people do different things, and I harbor no ill will or resentments of others. In fact, they are merely challenges that function as a source of inspiration.

There is no requirement for me to be influenced by those whom others view or accept to be high in status. I do not wish to rely on someone else’s judgment as to what to read, what to think, what to analyze, what to say or not say, and so on. I do not fault others for doing that, but I do note the general decline in courage to resist these forces of influence, perhaps because not resisting improves one’s rank and preserves one’s social and political capital. But as you have likely figured out, popularity has never been my interest or goal, in part because it generates distractions, disruptions, and obstructions.

My favorite mistake led to a beautiful discovery. It allowed me to be who I am — curious — and free to apply what I learned in genba kaizen, which is to ask questions and think critically. I independently evaluated the merits of Lean management and related phenomena and thus did not rely on others to formulate my thinking. I dissented from the orthodox Lean movement culture and took (and still take) unpopular positions, preferring to not be hemmed in by the prevailing fads of Lean thinking or Lean tools promulgated by Lean aristocrats, celebrities, and faux scientific thinkers. Some of my most vocal critics appear to me to be incurious and have little or no experience with genba kaizen — the truth — so it is not surprising that we see things differently.

Mark Graban and those who share his heartfelt concerns have long had an unpaid side-hustle of relegating the people they dislike to low status in Lean world. That is their prerogative. It is, after all, one approach to problem-solving. But it makes you wonder: What is the real problem?

…fearless speech is not reckless but is guided by a sense of duty towards the truth and the common good. It is the speech of the philosopher, the critic, or the citizen who dares to stand against the tide of popular opinion or the edicts of power and say what is true because it is true.

Jonny Thomson, “Parrhesia:” The Importance of Speaking Truth to Power and How to Do it Well,” Big Think, 23 February 2024

SIDEBAR: There is another dimension to status in Lean world that bears mention, though at the risk of igniting controversy. Until recently, Lean’s most fervent supporters were U.S.-based salaried professionals who were overwhelmingly White males and lesser numbers of white females. From their privileged position as salaried professionals, they eagerly took up the cause of waste on the hourly “blue collar” workers’ shop floor (the “lower status working class”). And it is only in the last 15 years or so that they have publicly expressed “respect ” to the people on the shop floor. This amounts to what is called a “luxury belief.” The originator of the phrase, Rob Henderson, defined it in 2019 as “ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.” The effect of having luxury beliefs is to “raise their social standing [status] by talking about their privilege.” Wikipedia defines “luxury belief” as “a belief held or espoused in order to signal that a person belongs to an elite class.” In Lean’s case, their privilege is to talk endlessly about waste (muda), “continuous improvement,” and “respect for people.” But, realistically, what has Lean done for shop and office floor workers? Virtually nothing in terms of the things that really matter to their welfare — higher pay, better healthcare benefits, work-life balance, and even unionization. Lean had a significant hand in increasing the wealth of corporate executives, but not shop and office floor workers. The latter saw cuts in pay due to inflation, recessions, the introduction of tiered wages based on seniority, and higher contribution to their healthcare plans — assuming they were not laid off due to process improvement — and outsourcing and offshoring. The subtitle of the 1996 book Lean Thinking is “Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation.” In those days, the subtitle was clearly a signal to already-wealthy senior business leaders to further increase their wealth via their primary source of remuneration: stock options. And that’s why most leaders chose, then and now, to view Lean narrowly as cost cutting. Every dollar of cost cut in a 20 percent gross margin business has the same impact as increasing top line sales by five dollars. Cost savings have a huge effect on increasing stock price. Yes, shop and office employees were compensated with company stock in the savings or retirement plans, but their shares (individually) were few compared to the huge blocks of stock granted to senior leaders. Today Lean is far more multicultural, but its proponents remain privileged people. Still, to this day, few shop workers have an affinity for Lean management. Likewise, for office workers. They are not advocates for Lean in any meaningful (industry- or society-level) way. That is the result after 36 years? That is a big miss! A strong case can be made that Lean manifested itself as an early example of a luxury belief. Beginning in 1973, people started to learn about Toyota’s production system (TPS). An abundance of White male professionals promoted it, which at the time was widely known as Just-in-Time.” Was that an even earlier example of a  luxury belief? It seems so, because even then little benefit accrued to shop and office workers, especially post 1980 when the “corporate raiders” began their wealth creating magic, followed by private equity starting in the early 2000s. With the exception of the last four years, luxury beliefs have taken a toll on the “lower class” of workers over the last 50 years. Of course, this does not fall entirely on TPS or Lean. Far from it. There were many other luxury beliefs in play that contributed to workers’ workplace and financial struggles over the last half-century. But is it striking that Lean promoters failed — and continue to fail — to make life better for shop and office workers in tangible ways beyond palliatives like making work easier or fun. I see no advocacy for higher pay, better working conditions, better healthcare, unionization, etc. We all know who is in control — CEOs, not promoters and not Lean professionals. Nevertheless, the consistent lack of advocacy on behalf of shop and office workers suggests that Lean professionals, then, as now, ascribe to luxury beliefs. If Lean promoters, influencers, and professionals are truly in league with the shop and office floor workers, then they must prove it by taking concrete actions directed towards improving the welfare of shop and office floor workers. They must also get society interested and aligned with Lean management, not just individual companies. Failing to do this relegates Lean to being just another luxury belief of the affluent. So, what to do? Get upset? No. Engage in hansei (reflection): examine the past, acknowledge mistakes, and pledge to make improvements for the future.

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