Last week I received a review copy of the second edition of Bob Emiliani’s Shingo Prize winning Better Thinking, Better Results. I’ve always considered that book to be one of the top two or three lean books, as it tells the story of a very successful lean enterprise transformation at Wiremold. The executives at Wiremold, led by Art Byrne, understood that lean was not just about continuous improvement, but also required respect for people. That understanding let them create incredible lean excellence, with rather amazing and inspiring financial results. As Bob writes in the preface to the second edition,
Both "continuous improvement" and "respect for people" must be practiced, not just "continuous improvement" as is normally the case. Art Byrne and his management team understood this… and they thought deeply about what they were doing and its implications on employees, customers, suppliers, investors, and the communities in which they operated. Most executives don’t do that.
Unfortunately the "respect for people" principle is difficult to understand and apply, and the interplay between "continuous improvement" and "respect for people" is even more difficult to understand. For example, can you describe how andon lights, takt time, or standardized work relate to and support the "respect for people" principle for each of the following stakeholders: employees, suppliers, customers, investors, and the community? If not, then you have a lot more to learn about Lean management. We all do.
There have been several updates to the text to clarify the compelling story of Wiremold’s lean transformation. However I found the most riveting part to be the "Update to the Second Edition" at the end of the book, where Bob describes what happens after 2001. Unfortunately this is not a good story, but still one that holds some lessons. Basically the Legrand company acquired Wiremold and forced old-style batch and queue manufacturing back into the company.
Legrand managers did not bother to learn about Lean and did not heed Art or Orry Fiume’s advice to apply Lean management across the corporation. Instead they found reasons not to do Lean – basically, "we’re different" – and Wiremold quickly backslid. In fact, Legrand management seemed to actively dismantle almost everything that Art and his management team and people of Wiremold accomplished.
Bob Emiliani then goes into considerable detail describing how this happened. The final chapter was written only last year.
In January of 2006, a standard-cost software system was installed at Wiremold, adding headcount to the finance function and thus completing the return to batch-and-queue thinking and management. Lean management at Wiremold was extinguished just three years after Art and Orry’s retirements.
Call me a softy, but the thought of a leading example of lean excellence being destroyed in just three years hit me hard. Think about what many of you are going through with your transformations. It is very difficult. It impacts everyone, takes effort to change thinking, and eventually creates immense personal and financial satisfaction. All gone. I emailed Bob to share some of my thoughts, and he was kind enough to respond with some observations.
It was personally very painful for Wirmeold people to go backwards. So, yes, it is sad what happened to Wiremold… but not from the perspective of Legrand management. They did what they were trained to do. I tried to write about what happened in a dispassionate clinical fashion, and just focus on the facts. I think doing it this way helps make it more educational (useful) for practitioners and provides accurate documentation of Lean history. Wiremold’s story should help us be more vigilant and install countermeasures to prevent this from happening in the future.
And perhaps that hints at the lesson. We like to think of lean manufacturing and lean enterprise as being strong and robust, especially when they are fully-developed. But here we have an example of just how fragile and tenuous lean can be. The results of Wiremold’s efforts were very visible, especially on the bottom line of financial reports. The people were among the most passionate and knowledgeable of lean in the world. Yet that wasn’t enough. Confronted with a traditional batch thinking, traditional accounting methods, and traditional people and leadership, tradition won. How do we change that? How can we make lean more robust and durable? Education? I don’t know.
I encourage you to pick up the second edition of Better Thinking, Better Results. The original story is an inspiring roadmap to lean, and the Update at the end may leave you tearful. At a minimum it will make you think. Better.