I’ve noticed a lean trend lately that is going to accelerate the separation between companies that get it – and will survive – and those that don’t and are doomed to inevitable failure. That trend is an increasing unwillingness on the part of middle managers to tolerate weak leadership.
A few years ago, I would talk to senior managers about lean, they would drag their feet or openly oppose it, and their managers would contact me asking about strategies to help them bring their bosses around. Now, I make the pitch, senior managers react with their strategic/financial nonsense about their business being unique and lean not being applicable – and their managers contact me to ask if I can tell them the name of a lean company that is hiring. As much as I would like to encourage loyalty and urge those folks to stick it out and fight the good fight with their reluctant employers, the fact is that I see a lot of myself in these anxious-to-bail-out leanies.
Senior managers should be aware of the consequences of their ignorance. The top guy who condescendingly explained to me that Toyota really isn’t all that special and that lean is a fad had no idea that he was playing high stakes poker. He was completely unaware of the fact that he was on trial and that his staff was listening closely. The production and engineering managers from that company are about the two best and brightest people they have. Within days of hearing the strategic direction he carved out, they contacted me asking for the names of any senior manufacturing folks I knew who had made the opposite choice for their companies.
In another instance, I was asked for career advice by a guy who was a solid lean expert and had been hired to drive a company’s lean effort, only to discover that the management really had no intention to pursue lean. The guy had been hired as window dressing – someone to prop up in front of the customers to create the illusion of lean. He had made the decision to leave, and wanted me to give him some pointers on how to spot the lean phonies and avoid making the same mistake with his next move.
As valuable a character trait as loyalty may be, only fools goes down with the ship alongside the captain when he steers it onto the rocks. Leaders who will not understand and will not support lean thinking do not deserve the respect and support of employees who do. In all likelihood, many of these senior managers are pleased to be rid of the lean troublemakers on their staffs, and are more comfortable replacing them with folks content to make their living bashing direct labor and hammering suppliers.
The question of what to do when the top folks won’t support lean was raised and discussed on NWLean recently, with quite a few folks proposing strategies for mid-level people to try to bring the execs around. I agree with the impatient ones who believe it is not their job to educate senior management on the thirty year old principles of lean. No one would waste their time trying to argue with someone who still thinks the earth is flat or that horses should still play an essential role in transportation. I understand why employees do not want to waste their careers under leaders who still question whether the Toyota Production System is for real.
Lemings who follow their leaders off the side of a cliff are not loyal – they are stupid.