The flood of articles and blog posts out there saying that if Detroit / American manufacturing / the defense industry / (fill in your own) would just listen to either Dr. Deming or Jim Womack, then all would be solved, are nothing short of ridiculous. If I were the CEO of a manufacturing company, once I read their books, they are perhaps the last two guys I would want to bring in to help with my lean journey. The only lean folks more useless are the pundits and consultants who do nothing more than repackage Deming and Womack’s thoughts as their own and spout them at senior management. Don’t get worked up into a blather, accusing me of committing lean heresy thinking I am denigrating the gods of lean. The simple fact is that they, along with others, are philosophers and visionaries – great manufacturing philosophers to be sure – but philosophers and visionaries nevertheless. No one can disagree with a single word they said, but once they have spoken, neither is particularly helpful when the time comes to turn their philosophy into action.
I was amazed at the emotional reaction last week when I questioned the value of Womack urging Detroit to enter into a new ‘social contract’ with its employees. Well, let me set off all of the Deming worshipers out there while I’m at it. His 14 Points – ‘Drive Out Fear’, ‘Institute Leadership’, ‘Break Down Barriers Between Departments’, etc… – are, for the most part, philosophically correct but practically useless. They are useless because neither Womack nor Deming has provided a specific prescription for turning their beautiful theories into practical application. Hammering these euphemisms at senior managers strikes me as the same thing as having your boss tell you to "Do better quality work", "Be a better manager", "Be more productive"; but being unwilling or incapable of giving you any advice or direction, and unable to address any of the very real obstacles preventing you from meeting those objectives. You need someone standing around your office telling you to "Be a better manager" about as much as Rick Wagoner and Bill Ford need someone standing around their office telling them to "Enter into a new social contract" or "Drive out fear".
It is important to note that I am by no means belittling the contribution to lean of Jim Womack or Dr. Deming. If anything, I am getting after the rest of us. The person most deserving of criticism is me for criticizing Jim Womack for not being more than a visionary. That is like criticizing Hank Aaron for not stealing more bases. But the state of lean manufacturing in 2006 is similar to the state of the lunar landing project in the mid-1960’s. Kennedy laid out the vision in his 1961 speech to Congress, " … this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth." But he had no idea how to make that vision a reality – he probably needed help from the Air Force to get his kids’ kites in the air. What made the moon landing happen 8 years later was the team of NASA science and engineering leaders who bridged the gap between Kennedy’s vision and the millions of discrete technical and manufacturing projects that were needed to physically transport Neil Armstrong from Florida to the Sea of Tranquility.
My error has been to put the burden of the engineering work on Jim Womack’s shoulders, which is the same as expecting Kennedy to have done the rocket science after he laid out the vision. The error of the broader lean community has been that we have largely done a pretty dismal job of following up on Deming and Womack’s visions and philosophies, and identifying the specific steps it takes to make their ideas a reality. They said "What" to do, and it is our responsibility to say "How" to do it. Rick Wagoner and Bill Ford have heard enough of the ‘What’ by now, but no one has effectively told them ‘How’.
For my money, the best "How" guy that ever was involved in lean was Shingo. Even Ohno was more of a "What" guy. Shingo’s contribution was to convert the Toyoda family vision into manufacturing reality. You won’t find a lean theory or philosophy book by Shingo, but you won’t find anyone who knew the philosophy any more thoroughly. I think he is the role model all of us in the lean community – especially me – need to follow. Anyone can quote Deming or Womack and spout the mantra at manufacturing leadership. That doesn’t take much creative thinking. The leadership we need to develop, however, is the Shingo sort that helps manufacturing management take the long series of small, logical, effective steps needed to effectively compete with the rest of the world.
My apologies to Jim Womack; my hat’s off to him and Dr. Deming; thanks for getting us this far; I think I’ll lean on Shingo the rest of the way.