Lean Management versus Management by Personality

This month’s question asks how can a Lean implementation program survive a change in top management? After all a Lean journey can take many years and a CEO might only be in place for a few years. The implied question I suppose is what is to stop the next CEO from abandoning the course? In the short run this can indeed be a problem and only true success and careful planning can help mitigate this risk. However succession planning is not the real crux of the issue in my opinion. After all brilliant leaders, dictators, and despots can all groom successors if they so choose. That alone however does not ensure their “system” will sustain and prosper in the long run. Planning alone will not make Lean successful either. Let me try and explain what I mean with some examples, analogies, and Toyota history.

In the short run I fully recognize and agree that a change in top management can be the kiss of death to Lean programs – even successful ones. Often times a new CEO (or whomever is in charge of the Lean effort) comes along and due to reasons of insecurity, lack of knowledge, or simply a differing belief system he or she will abandon the program. I have seen this play out quite a few times and the result is usually not pretty. Employees see this sort of change occur a couple of times during their career and pretty soon all change programs are viewed as “flavor of the month” items that will eventually go away. As a result very few people are committed or true practitioners. It is a sad state of affairs but unfortunately all too true in many companies.

This situation reflects a couple of problems that I see and I will try to describe them in order. For starters deep down we seem to have a strong belief in and perhaps need for charismatic leaders in most organizations. In other words when the system or processes are weak and people are underdeveloped then we need a strong charismatic leader at the helm to provide direction, make decisions, and exhort people onto greater effort and achievement. Of course sometimes this can be done in completely non Lean ways through manipulation or coercion, etc. Often mediocre companies need a positive, deeply committed, and energetic person to get started. Successful Lean turnaround stories are chalk full of these sorts of leaders (not the manipulative despots I was referring to).

However relying upon the CEO (or any single executive) to drive the Lean program year after year is not necessarily going to produce results in the long run. Whether we are talking about “enlightened lean leaders” or “autocratic despots” I think we are talking about two sides of the same coin. In other words although extremely different circumstances and scenarios are involved both cases are subsets of what I call relying upon “management by personality” instead of “management by a true lean system”. Of course companies are happy and successful when they have a great leader and markets lavish praise and rewards upon successful leaders. However even well run companies can falter when the great leader retires. This happens even when succession planning is carefully conducted. Will Apple Corporation still be successful in a few years now that Steve Jobs has passed away? I for one am certainly curious.

The problem as I view it is that strong leaders often do not necessarily excel in the rare combination of making people, products, systems, and processes all stronger even after they leave. For a true “system” to be built and to sustain it has to be stronger than the “personality” of the person at the top. In other words a company is truly lean when it can withstand a change in top management and the direction is not substantially changed from True North (or whatever buzzword you like to apply). In my personal opinion that is one of the most remarkable accomplishments of Toyota Motor Corporation over the years. Yes they have carefully chosen their top executive over the years but it has not always worked out the way they anticipated.

Here is an list of all the Toyota top executives since 1937. (Note that TPS architect Taiichi Ohno is not on the list. He never rose above VP of Manufacturing).

1) 1937-1941 Risburo Toyoda

2) 1941- 1950 Kiichiro Toyoda

3) 1950-1961 Taizo Ishida

4) 1961 – 1967 Fukio Nakagawa

5) 1967-1982 Eiji Toyoda

6) 1982-1992 Shoichiro Toyoda

7) 1992-1995 Tatsuro Toyoda

8) 1995-1999 Hiroshi Okuda

9) 1999-2005 Fujio Cho

10) 2005-2009 Katsuaki Watanabe

11) 2009 – Current Akio Toyoda

Okay how many were you able to name off the top of your head. Probably not very many. In reviewing the list Toyota has had only one truly great CEO in my biased opinion and that was Eiji Toyoda. More than any person in the company’s history I believed he made the key decisions, developed people, promoted systematic ways of doing things, and made the culture what it is today. Several others are of course quite good while a couple of others are viewed as pretty weak in hindsight. Despite this wide variety of leadership talent Toyota has managed to stay quite strong in terms of Lean improvements over the years. Why? Because people like Eiji Toyoda were smart and capable enough to build a system that was logical and resilient enough to withstand the forces of change at the top. That in my opinion should be a goal for any executive promoting lean and not just choosing the right successor (i.e. personality) to keep the program going in the short run.

Sometimes invoking Toyota as an example does not resonate well with some parties. I use it only as a reference point for comparison and not the answer to everything under the sun. Let’s change the analogy entirely and shift from production to politics which I admit is really an apples to oranges comparison. However it can provide some food for contemplative thought I believe. Why is it that the Prime Minister of France or the United Kingdom for example can change (or the President of the United State for that matter) and the underlying republic or democracy stays in tact decade after decade? Of course bad events like wars and recessions occur but neither country has reverted back to a pre-democratic state or a fallen under the spell of a dictator…(yes I can think of some good jokes and exceptions here and there of course especially in the United States).

I’d argue that a strong reason is that the constitution, democratic processes, and culture of the countries aforementioned is strong enough to withstand the tide of a change in leadership from conservative, to moderate, to or liberal and back again. In companies pursuing Lean we do not yet have this sort of constitution and series of checks and balances well thought out yet. We have Boards of Directors representing shareholders picking CEO’s and in some cases grooming replacements. This all strikes me as logical but also still susceptible to management by personality. We need to move closer to a consistent system of management by Lean Thinking that sustains over the forces of personality.

In conclusion I admit my political analogy is full of holes (public versus private, etc.) and may distract some parties. Toyota may or may not be your cup of tea either…However I think both cases are food for thought for executives to think about. How will you build the equivalent of a constitution, a series of checks and balances, and a culture that is strong enough to sustain in the long run?