I really like Seth Godin’s writing – his blog on marketing is one that I have followed regularly for years and his book Purple Cow is a fun read about creating a service or product that delights and wows your customers. He’s mentioned Lean before (and gotten it somewhat wrong at times) and now he’s written a piece that, unfortunately, defames factories with a broad brush description of “factory thinking.” I’ll tell you why I think he’s dead wrong this time about factories and improvement.
I think Godin is like many business leaders who have never (or rarely set foot in a factory). Many healthcare leaders have never been in a factory either. They don’t have a good understanding of factories and they don’t have a good appreciation for what makes a “good” factory or a “bad one.”
Those outside of manufacturing often think of factories as cold, mechanistic places where simpletons crank out thousands of copies of the same thing over and over again. People often feel superior by demeaning or misrepresenting an industry that’s yesterday’s news or something of a long-ago era, like manufacturing. “You see, what we do here is creative and unique” is something people might say in hospitals or ad agencies.
The reality of manufacturing is that a factory is not just a technical place, it is a social system. People are the critical piece of a good factory, even those that are highly automated. Toyota’s expression of “building people before building cars” speaks to the importance they place on developing people and developing leaders – their people are the difference. A factory is not a machine – it is a social environment where leadership makes all of the difference between a good factory and an underperforming one.
Are some factories brutal awful places where safety standards and common decency are ignored? Sure, but the same sort of awful behavior and bad mindsets can be seen in a hospital from time to time.
Godin slams all of the good people in manufacturing with this comment:
Factories don’t have to make stuff… they’re any business that focuses on doing what it did yesterday, but cheaper and faster.) It turns out that factory thinking is part of a race to the bottom, to be the cheapest, the easiest place to pollute, the workforce that will take what it can get.
Doing what you did yesterday, but cheaper and faster…. what about improving quality, Seth? You don’t think factories are trying to improve quality every day? Shouldn’t EVERY type of organization focus on improvement, including hospitals??
I’m not sure what Godin means by “factory thinking” being an inevitable “race to the bottom” – it sounds like he’s criticizing BAD manufacturers. Why paint with such a broad brush? Our best factories, including big names like Toyota and little names like VIBCO and FastCap are focused on doing the right things for their customers, their employees, and the environment. (An aside on Toyota, for all of their recent quality disasters, nobody has accused the FACTORY of creating these problems – this was a product design and executive leadership problem).
Godin’s apparent bias that “factories are bad” is understandable based on where he grew up:
I grew up not too far from the Love Canal. It’s a world famous toxic waste dump. While it helped the short tem profits of Hooker, the chemical company that dumped there,
He’s right to criticize companies like Hooker or others who have polluted and been irresponsible. But it’s hardly true to say all manufacturers are like this. My grandparents lived in Flint, Michigan and northeastern Ohio. I’ve seen way too many closed-down factories and crumbling communities, but that doesn’t mean that I think all manufacturers care about is firing people and closing down plants.
Godin paints an alternative to “factory thinking” – he doesn’t name it, but I’ll call it “professional thinking,” as it’s obviously far more advanced than anything a factory rat could come up with.
- Investing in training the workforce to solve interesting problems, so they can work at just about any job.
- Maintaining infrastructure, safety and civil rights so we can create a community where talented people and the entrepreneurs who hire them (two groups that can live wherever they choose) would choose to live there.
- Reward and celebrate the scientific process that leads to scalable breakthroughs, productivity and a stable path to the future.
- Spend community (our) money on services and infrastructure that help successful organizations and families thrive.
Ironically, lean companies do all of those four things. They invest in people and help build their improvement and problem solving skills (like Toyota, FastCap, and VIBCO). These companies create a culture where factory employees can be creative and even entrepreneurial. They reward those who follow the scientific method and PDCA improvement cycles. They focus on the community, such as Toyota and others who are working toward “zero-landfill” factories and dedicating employee time to volunteer in the community (as Toyota did instead of laying off workers during the 2008-2009 drop in sales ).
Our best lean hospitals also encompass that type of thinking, all four of those points that Seth makes.
There’s no such thing as generalized “factory thinking” and “professional thinking” – there’s just good thinking and bad thinking. My message to Seth Godin is to not slam an entire industry. If he went to Rhode Island and visited VIBCO, he’d learn an important lesson about the good thinking that occurs there.
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