Modern Management Is ALL Wrong?!

Jim Womack argues in a brilliant essay entitled Modern Management vs. Lean Management (in his book Gemba Walks, 2011) that the biggest impediment to Lean Thinking is the prevailing modern management style, with which we are all familiar. This management system was pioneered by GM one hundred years ago, and has spread far and wide as modern organizations and management needs grew to massive proportions. It is firmly entrenched in healthcare, with the industry’s rigid hierarchies and myriad specializations, though there may be opportunity for change due to the industry’s somewhat unusual promotion policies.

Personally, I would not assign all the blame to GM, but would suggest that this command-and-control style has also spread and dominated due to fundamental issues of human nature. For one, there may be a self-selection element involved, in that those who would aspire to manage, and would beat out others for the role, may have certain personality traits that lend themselves to a more authoritarian style. Also, managers might gravitate toward that style as a tool for self-preservation, as an entitlement of promotion above peers, or simply because they have the power to do so. Many research studies have been done on what people are capable of once given a little power and authority. Its as though human nature has some latent authoritative tendencies that require deliberate design to keep suppressed. I guess history would overwhelming prove that point.

The fascinating and exciting thing is that Toyota turned all of this on its head after World War II, and has pioneered a much more effective management style that is opposite IN ALMOST EVERY WAY. Finally, since the 1990s, this system is getting the attention and study it deserves. Yet this fundamental issue remains: how to break the modern management style when everything (except the bottom line) supports it, including human nature, inertia, education and business schools, hiring policies, promotion policies, org structures, strategic plans, the “modern manager” stereotype, on and on.

Without further ado, the vast gulf between Modern Management and Lean Management (the source being Jim Womack’s thousands of studies and gemba walks at various organizations, and the collective learning of management experts, Toyota-specific and otherwise. Also, for reference, “gemba” is Japanese for “the real place,” the location of the actual work being done, the scene of the crime, etc.):

Authority vs. Responsibility

Modern managers seek authority to take action by referring to the organization chart.

Lean managers seek responsibility to address important issues by leading as if they have no authority.

Results vs. Process

Modern managers manage by results, to make their efforts look effective at the end of some reporting period (when the problems have already occurred).

Lean managers manage by process, by knowing at all times the condition of their process (which produces the results) so problems can be solved and improvements implemented before rather than after the fact.

Give Answers vs. Ask Questions

Modern managers give answers to their direct reports about the nature of the problem and its solution.

Lean managers pose questions to their problem owners about the nature of the problem and the best available countermeasures.

Plans vs. Experiments

Modern managers make grand plans…this leads to a focus on measuring compliance and determining who to blame when a plan fails.

Lean managers treat every plan as an experiment…this leads to a focus on discovering quickly how the plan is working and then rapidly devising and implementing countermeasures as the plan encounters problems.

Formal Education vs. Gemba Learning

Modern managers seek formal education to advance their careers.

Lean managers pursue gemba learning within their organization by participating in frequent [improvement projects] while being mentored by managers at the next higher level.

Staffs Improve Processes vs. Line Managers and Team Improve Processes

Modern line managers improve processes by outsourcing problems to staffs or consultants.

Lean line managers improve processes by directly leading improvement activities in dialogue with everyone touching the process, bringing in staff or consultants only as necessary on major technical issues.

Decisions Made Remotely With Data vs. Decisions Made On The Gemba With Facts

Modern managers make decisions remotely, analyzing data, usually in conference rooms far away from the gemba.

Lean managers make decisions on the gemba at the location of the problem, turning data into verified facts.

Standardization By Staffs vs. Standardization By Line Managers and Teams

Modern managers standardize processes by relying on staff experts. Or, more likely, they never make any serious effort to standardize the processes they are managing or their own management practice.

Lean managers standardize processes through hands-on engagement with all of the people touching the process.

Go Fast To Go Slow vs. Go Slow To Go Fast

Modern managers go fast to go slow, because problems are never fully understood and the quick countermeasures don’t (and can’t) address the real issue.

Lean managers go slow to go fast, by taking time at the outset to fully understand the process and its purpose, through dialogue with everyone involved including customers and suppliers, and by fully understanding the root cause of problems and the most promising countermeasures before taking action.

Vertical Focus vs. Horizontal Focus

Modern managers focus vertically on the organization, with all the functions and silos oriented toward the CEO at the top. This fits in perfectly with authority-based management.

Lean managers focus horizontally on the flow of value across the organization, from the initial concept for the product and the raw materials to the customer. This can only work by utilizing responsibility-based management where lean managers think horizontally to solve problems by dialoguing with many departments and functions over which they have (and can have) no authority.

Note that this last contrast is not just a matter of thinking. It must also be the way that managers act every day if value for the customer is going to be optimized by engaging all the people touching the process in steady improvement. It is the key to creatively fusing purpose, process, and people in a lean enterprise.

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