What standard do you hold yourself to when someone asks you questions about Lean management or Toyota management?  The standard could vary as widely for a person as it can from person-to-person. There are at least eight possible standards to choose from:

  • Say “I don’t know”
  • Guess at the answer
  • Say what you heard
  • Say what you read
  • Say what you did
  • Say whatever you wish to further your own interests
  • Obfuscate, mislead, or even lie
  • Carefully check facts to make sure you are as accurate as is humanly possible

If you are a professor, as I am, then you don’t have the range of choices that other people have – whether you are a promoter of Lean or a Lean practitioner. Professors truly have only one choice: answer questions factually, as best that they can. Professors hold themselves to a high standard as a result of the lengthy process they went through to obtain their terminal degree (i.e. lots of training in research, fact-finding, analysis, and criticism), as well as pride in one’s own work. Professors are also held to high standards by their peers and by their students. The former evaluate their work while the latter complete assignments that could reveal that the professor does not know the subject, is biased, or has a hidden agenda. 

When I am asked questions about Lean, TPS, and so on, I answer them based on my own experience as a practitioner, observer, teacher, researcher, and writer. Though, you’ll be happy to know, I answer questions in class in a much sweeter tone than the tone I use in my books and blog. And, as required by journal editorial guidelines, my academic research papers are written in a dispassionate tone. So, while my tone does vary, I strive for accuracy in the content of the answers, to the best of my ability, as I understand the subject at any given point in time. I believe almost everyone who knows my work recognizes this.

But, not everyone can or is willing to answer questions the way I do. So, below are some questions that I get from students in class, and two columns of answers. The “Your Possible Answer” column reflects common answers to the questions, while my answers are shown in the adjacent column.

I hope you recognize that the standard I work to reflects my education, training, and the constant demands of my profession (teaching and research in higher education). And it also reflects a personal standard when my name is associated with the information conveyed. The Table below is not meant to make a claim as to “who’s better,” but rather to illustrate how different personal or professional standards yield different answers. (Read more below the Table).

It seems my involvement with Lean causes some people a lot of difficulty because I do not simply “go along.” Given my professional work interests and personal interests, I can’t just “go along,” and there should not be a requirement for that. Instead, the Lean community should be more tolerant and more accepting of the facts, as the above Table illustrates.

And finally, hasn’t it been blindingly obvious, for a decade or more, that I have been willing to harm my interests in order to help others learn and improve? The prime motive for my work is service, self-sacrifice, to fellow human beings and the community. That is why teaching is one of the few “noble professions.”

8 Responses to How Would You Answer These Questions?

  1. Bob Rush says:

    Bob — I think one of the principal differences between lean and TPS is that the majority of people doing “lean” have not been exposed to TPS at all and in particular they have had no interaction with the people (Sensei) that lived it for so long.

    Add in most of the people involved in lean now don’t like the old terms, tools, and processes so they try to get “close enough.” If you want learn TPS you better have a direct connection to Toyota and you better have years to study it.

    Lean is really just shorthand for I’m trying to change stuff is my observation.

    And on a personal note I agree with you some and I disagree some but what I never do is lose respect for you, keep it up and have some fun doing it.

  2. William Ryan says:

    Thanks Bob for who you are and what you do and the total sensei you are…Like you I would say “what I did and why” and would be fair but firm in my Lean principled beliefs. To me Lean was the more generic brand of TPS because true TPS was more pure culture Toyoda ,Ohno and Shingo. While Lean as Womack , Liker and others feel is the closest one can come to fit Lean principles into other companies as best they can knowing that the true TPS Japanese culture cannot really be matched and is not the same. I saw this clearly play out in my Ford Production System FPS culture compared to true TPS culture was no where the same. This is why today we have so many derivatives of true TPS that Liker and others called American versions of. It was the next best thing was to fit TPS into your company the best you could with the most TPS principled value you could ended up being called Lean by many. I like you had no choice but to take the Lean journey for FPS and do the best “True North” application I could with all the different variables than what the founders of TPS had. Believe me I had plenty of resistance and personal sacrifice was a plenty to me and my family at times…But in the end if you hold your higher Lean standards many will thank you and will receive great gratification. The company received the big money and benefit from and I received a pay check and later the gratification.

  3. William Ryan says:

    Bob here are a few more things one has to be able to do to become a successful sensei…See http://www.cnbc.com/2017/04/06/22-hard-things-you-have-to-do-to-be-successful.html?__source=newsletter%7Cmakeitweekly. Lean is the enabler of creative and agile processes and better work cultured companies.

  4. Lonnie Wilson says:

    Hello Bob, I don’t make it a practice of blogging, I much prefer face to face discussions and if that is not practical, next are phone conversations where dialogue is easier. Anyway I like your postings and agree that your answers are far less generic and give more context, where that is needed. I do not however agree with your underlying premise, that somehow professors hold themselves to a higher standard. I have heard a great deal of sound lean thinking coming from some academics but by virtue of being a professor they have no monopoly on the truth or even clarity, completeness or accuracy for that matter. Likewise, I have heard a great deal of drivel coming out masked as lean and a great deal of it is from professors and the academic community in particular. I have had over 40 years of working in the lean community, before lean was called lean, and find that you need to be very circumspect of anyone writing about lean who has not actually been in a leadership position applying lean on the factory floor. Likewise I view with great cynicism, those who profess to understand leadership if they have not been on the firing line of actually leading while facing the day in day out battles. When the sum and substance of a writers’ experience is observing or studying a topic, if they are very good observers, they can obtain a great deal of intellectual knowledge…but that does not mean they can actually do anything. It is a little like parenting, I can tell you with certainty I was an impeccable parent….right up to the point where I actually had to parent. Then the one overriding thing I learned…was actually how much I had yet to learn.

    However, I find your posting a little curious. Are not the very group at LEI which you rail so often against…largely academics??

    Have a good day and keep poking the system, it will only help in the long run.

    • Bob Emiliani says:

      Hi Lonnie – Thanks for your feedback. As I said in the post, “Professors truly have only one choice: answer questions factually, as best that they can.” Like any job, sometimes professors do bad work and do not do the best they can to obtain the facts. Other times, they may speak about things they think they know but do not actually know. Again, this is not unique to professors – it can be the case for anyone in any kind of job.

      When it comes to something learned through practice, such as TPS or Lean, professors can indeed be way off-base. Oftentimes, professors have great difficulty distinguishing between their peers who have hands-on experience (such as me) and those who don’t. Or, they rely too heavily on the published academic literature as a source of knowledge, not recognizing that errors can be carried over from one author to the next over generations. Despite this, some profs can still provide useful feedback or observations.

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