Last week Dan posted a piece about some guys who reinvented the lean wheel over on the Harvard Business Review, and dubbed it M4L4M – More For Less For More. Cute name, huh? They wrote that M4L4M is "a strategy that places an emphasis on delivering more value for less cost for more people." I submitted a comment to their post that, strangely enough, three days later they finally published, telling them that:
"a strategy that places an emphasis on delivering more value for less cost for more people" sounds a whole lot like our description of lean from a couple of months back:
"The objective is to continually improve the percentage of money spent on useful endeavors - making sure more of it is gong to things customers perceive to be of value and worth paying for, and less of it to waste."
Now maybe it took so long to post my comment because they are a bunch of wild and crazy guys who have been too busy partying it up all weekend in Cambridge and haven't checked their site; and maybe they have sat on it because they spent the weekend hunkered down with their lawyers worrying about plagiarism charges – not to worry boys, I know that to have stolen the idea you would have had to descend from the rarefied air of Harvard to read common trash like Evolving Excellence, which most certainly has never happened.
The problem is that ideas are worthless if they are not original. Thinking of things that have already been thought of is pretty much a waste of time, and no one gets rich reinventing wheels, lean or anything else. Ideas are academia's stock in trade. Nothing wrong with that – God knows we need all the good ideas we can get – but there is a basic dynamic at play here.
"Wanna know why I carry this tape recorder? To tape things. See, I'm an idea man, Chuck. I got ideas coming at me all day. I couldn't even fight 'em off if I wanted. Wait a second! Hold the phone! Hold the phone!
What if you mix the mayonnaise in the can, with the tuna fish? Or – hold it Chuck – I got it! Take live tuna fish and feed 'em mayonnaise! Oh, this is great!"
They are idea men, but the average academic doesn't have the experience and detailed knowledge to take the idea and work it into something useful. That works out well, because most of us don't have the breadth of knowledge or the time to think of big ideas and grand philosophies. We stand on the shoulders of the thinkers and philosophers who think of the big things. They conjure up the big idea – then folks like me, Kevin, Dan, and just about all of the Evolving Excellence readers take the idea and mold it, shape it, hammer out the edges, and modify it a bit – often quite a bit – to turn the academic theory into useful application and results.
The problem this arrangement presents for academia is that they stop getting paid after the idea goes into the hands of the practitioners. The economist David Ricardo of Comparative Advantage fame quoted his French contemporary Jean-Baptiste Say, "The first man who knew how to soften metals by fire, is not the creator of the value which that process adds to the melted metal. That value is the result of the physical action of fire added to the industry and capital of those who availed themselves of this knowledge." In other words, an idea or a theory is pretty much useless until someone actually runs with it to make something better. That quote has a lot to say about the folly of building an economy around innovation without manufacturing, but it also puts ideas into perspective.
Lean, or M4L4M or any other theory, only has value when it is put into practice – and then the lion's share of the reward goes to those turned the idea into reality. Jim Womack makes a little bit of money for the theory of lean, consultants like me then make a little bit of money for working it into a practical form a client company can use, and then the company makes a huge amount of money -as they rightfully should - when they use the ideas and modifications in the real, tangible production of better products at a lower cost. The originators of the idea are left behind in the money making process – they have outlived their usefulness when the idea is made known, because they often cannot contribute to putting the idea into practical form. So after the book sales drop off and the invitations to run the lecture circuit drop off, the idea man has to go back and think up a whole new idea. The royalties from yesterday's philosophies are pretty thin. So the academic comes up with a new idea – drapes a new buzzword over it to stake his claim to its originality – and goes about selling it as the next great thing.
The academic community has largely abandoned lean because it is way beyond theory and, therefore, way beyond their ability to contribute to the detailed molding, twisting, shaping and pounding it into practical form. They are working on the next big idea, because that is what they do and that is what they get paid to do. I'm sure it is tragic for them to find that a big idea like M4L4M has already been discovered – and back to the drawing board they must go – but back they will go and the academic idea/buzzword factory will continue full force, and it will be up to the rest of the world to continue as we always have, and cull the few good ideas from the many bad ones and reinventions of old ideas.