Last week I traveled close to 400 miles to spend a day explaining Lean Accounting and the Lean Enterprise management infrastructure to a company that, it turns out, had no intention whatsoever of implementing anything. I had forgotten how much fun that can be.
I had the great fortune of starting my career in industrial engineering at a company called Amerock, a long-gone Illinois manufacturer. They were an old, very well run, manufacturing focused company that had just been sold to Anchor Hocking when I started. That sale was the first step in a couple of sales to big, poorly run companies and the long, slow death of a great manufacturer. But I didn't know that then, and benefited enormously from their culture of embracing ideas for their own sake driven and supported by a VP of Manufacturing named Maury Johnson.
They had a couple of guys whose main job was to read, research, poke, prod and do little more than continually expand the envelope of their manufacturing management processes. These were the early days of MRP and it was through them that I met guys like Ollie Wight and george Plossl. It was Amerock that I learned that there were alternatives to standard costs, when I was given a copy of an old book called The Complete Machine-Hour Rate System for Cost-Estimating and Pricingby a guy named Spencer Tucker, which contains a lot of the concepts of lean accounting. The point is that Amerock encouraged looking into new ideas and provided time and support for people who wanted to explore them.
Later in my career I hit the mother-lode of learning when I worked for the Copeland Corporation. Similarly they were a successful old midwestern manufacturer recently acquired by Emerson Electric. Emerson has not destroyed them, however, and they still do very well.
Copeland was run by an extraordinary COO named Dean Ruwe, who was driven to keep ideas percolating throughout the company. He inundated managers with books and articles, and routinely brought experts and authors in to speak … with no particular purpose in mind other than a desire to have management aware of and discussing every new concept that came along. He had complete faith that, if any of the ideas were good, the management team would distill them into meaningful action and they would bubble up to his level.
At Copeland, thanks to this learning and idea driven culture, I first met guys like Deming and Bob Camp from Xerox who literally wrote the book on benchmarking. I met Ken Stork and Bill Smith who were instrumental in Motorola's creation and application of Six Sigma, and I heard from all sorts of Baldrige winners. It was an extraordinary environment with constant conversations, debates and projects churning throughout middle management to sort out all of the new ideas in manufacturing and build consensus around them.
The concept of such a learning culture is that change is best accomplished through bottom up consensus building, as opposed to top down mandate. Dean Ruwe was a wise man, and more often than not he figured out before anyone else which ideas were good, but was patient enough to allow the rest of the company to figure it out and bring it to him.
Amerock was doomed largely because their new owners at Anchor Hocking destroyed this culture, and Copeland continued to thrive largely because Emerson was smart enough to allow it to continue to thrive.
When I found that the company I visited had no pressing need and there was no passionate internal champion pushing Lean Accounting or Lean Enterprise, my first reaction was disappointment. But when I realized I was there at the behest of a CEO who had no greater purpose in mind that to keep the creative juices of his management team stirred up – that I was spending the day with a guy made in the Maury Johnson – Dean Ruwe mold, it felt like old-home week. No personal agendas, no internal power plays, no threat and no pressure – just a room full of smart, engaged people kicking around ideas. Whatever they do with the information I imparted, that was great leadership.