Jim Womack Interview in Industry Week – Thought Leaders, Lean on Me

I found the link to above interview with Jim Womack on Mark Graban’s Lean Blog. Check out the post and Mark’s insightful comments.

I wanted to highlight a separate section of the interview in which Mr. Womack is discussing the adoption of Lean in the US. He summarizes his response with the following statement:

I would say that’s the biggest single change in management mentality, to step back and say, “Gosh, the reason why we’re fighting fires all the time is we don’t have any fire marshals around here. We’ve got an incredible fire department with the very best equipment and the fastest, brightest trucks, but we don’t do any fire prevention at all.” That I would say describes American management at this point: brilliant at fighting fires, but not adept at all at preventing fires. And to take our poster boy company, that’s what Toyota historically has done so well is to put bullet-proof processes in place for product development, fulfillment, order delivery and supplier management so that actually things work, as opposed to “nothing works but that’s okay because we’ve really got some bright people on it and we’ll get back to you, boss, in four days with an answer.” That’s a big, big difference in what managers think they do.

Mr. Womack’s comments align with my experiences over the last 15 years. Working in a wide variety of industries, mainly within IT, I have experienced these heroic behaviours as the rule and not exceptions, to rewarded activity. Along with broken or non-existent process, heroic behaviour also arises from poor time management and prioritization of work, inadequate communication as to what work needs to be accomplished by what date, insufficient resource allocation and planning.

Generally, from my experience, management and non-management operate reactively on a day-to-day basis. There is no shortage of complaints on “I’m so busy”, “not another meeting”, “why are we doing this”, and inter-departmental finger pointing. Point solutions are discussed ad nauseum with no tangible change in how people behave. That is partly were the solution may lay. In order for management and non-management to change their behaviour, they must acknowledge to themselves that their current actions are not contributing value to the business (or their family or friendships.) A dictate from executive management mandating a new way of doing something (which is supposedly better) by itself will not result in the positive changes that were anticipated. Teaching individuals to be more self-reflective and empathetic and to create a safe environment for mistakes is also a critical ingredient to meaningful change.