The One Where John Seddon Inaccurately Criticizes Jim Womack
When I read John Seddon’s book Freedom from Command & Control: Rethinking Management for Lean Service, I was a fan. I thought here is someone from the Dr. Deming lineage who has a good message about what’s wrong with traditional management.
Unfortunately, in the past few years, I’ve been increasing disappointed with both the tenor and the content of his message. In his monthly email broadcasts, he frequently complains about “tool heads” and idiots and people who aren’t the thinker he is. I have other criticisms of his message, but I have one particular beef about a podcast he created called “Rethinking Lean Service” (it’s more a monologue, one that allows no opportunity for comments or questions, so I write here.).
In the podcast, he said, in part, the following (you can listen to an excerpt or read below, the entire podcast is no longer online):
“The tools people argue that Ohno said you must first standardize before you can improve. He never said that. Actually, it was Womack and Jones who said that. Indeed, in their 2007 edition of Machine That Changed The World, they said as follows…”
Seddon could not be more wrong on this point that Ohno never said that. His declarative statement is so incorrect, it makes you wonder if it’s an intentionally self-serving lie (to tear down lean and Womack and Jones) or if he was just sloppy. Given his academic airs, you’d expect more precision. He has a habit of going after Womack and Jones and, yes, I’ll defend them.
Update (3/1/11) — The direct quote seems to come from Ohno’s student Masaaki Imai, see my comment and documentation here. It was NOT made up by Womack and Jones.
Update (8/20/13) — The quote is attributed directly to Ohno in the back of the book “Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management,” which was updated and edited by people who worked directly with people who worked with Ohno.
“Where there is no standard, there can be no Kaizen.”
Note: if you are going to comment on this thread, please consider addressing my main point, that Seddon is misrepresenting both Ohno and Womack/Jones.
What he’s apparently referring to is Womack and Jones writing: “As Taiichi Ohno noted, “Without standards there can be no kaizen.” (and the full text is below):
Now Womack and Jones don’t footnote the exact Ohno quote (maybe they should have).
Ohno is quoted in The Birth of Lean as saying this: “My first move as the manager of the machine shop was to introduce standardized work.”
But if you look to Ohno’s own book “Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management,” Ohno writes things like these:
- “If you think of standards as the best you can do, it’s all over. The standard is only the baseline for doing further kaizen.”
- “Standards are set arbitrarily by humans, so how can they not change?”
- “When creating standard work it will be difficult to establish a standard if you are trying to achieve “the best way”. This is a big mistake. Document exactly what you are doing now.”
- “Without some standard you can’t say “We made it better” because there is nothing to compare it to, so you must create a standard for comparison.”
Ohno’s work seems to state, in many different ways, that standardization is important as a first step to kaizen.
Seddon might want to nitpick and ask “where’s the exact quote that Womack and Jones cite?” Fine, but it’s hard to argue that Womack and Jones invented the quote as part of some top-down command-and-control evil plot to force standardization on people, especially in services. Seddon often quotes Taiichi Ohno as saying “do not codify” the Toyota method, but nobody can find that exact quote either.
Seddon is right (and I’m paraphrasing) to say it’s harmful to over-standardize to the point where people aren’t thinking or to where a process isn’t flexible to meet customer needs. But many other Lean thinkers say that as well (a point that Seddon would probably deny).
Seddon rails generally against the use of “standardization” in services. He’d say that Ohno was building cars and service businesses are different so the same methods don’t apply.
Well, in healthcare (a service), standardization (via Lean and Toyota methods and mindsets) is leading to many quality and patient safety improvements (like Dr. Richard Shannon’s work that is literally saving lives), so it’s disingenuous for Seddon or his followers to make his blanket statements like “Lean doesn’t work in services.”
Here’s my overall post on standardized work, if you want to read more. Standardization is a spectrum, not an absolute. In some settings, more standardization isn’t helpful. In some situations, it is helpful but standardization shouldn’t be taken to an unnecessary extreme. We shouldn’t standardized for the sake of standardizing and “standardized” doesn’t mean “mindlessly identical.”
They are fond of trotting out a failed Lean effort at the British tax office (HRMC) — an effort that I’d squarely put in the “L.A.M.E.” column (“Lean As Misguidedly Executed”). But Seddon takes examples like that and makes the blanket statements that all Lean is bad in services — it’s not that people did it badly, there must be something inherently wrong with Lean if some people use it badly (I’m paraphrasing), but that’s a specious argument at best.
Situations where “Lean” is used to tell people to tell office workers to take memorabilia off of their desks (as was done at HRMC) are clearly L.A.M.E. This is the sort of thing I’ve criticized and even mocked in a video.
But unlike Dr. Brent James, Seddon can’t separate “lean done wrong” with “Lean” in general. Seddon paints with a broad brush that Lean is bad in a services settting — oh, and the solution is him, by the way. Seddon and his followers don’t seem to want to accept there is any good thinking or that there are any good people in the Lean world — you have to follow them. They say Lean is bad, they are good. Black and White.
Now, to the second part of Seddon’s audio clip. I *d0* would agree with him (strongly) that it appears the Womack and Jones take on standardization is not quite correct, that the “absolute standardization” of all work should be done by managers and engineers.
Updated: Looking at the whole of the chapter that Seddon is citing, Womack and Jones are giving a lot of credit to work teams driving improvement. They are reporting the fact that Toyota has managers and engineers set up a process (undoubtedly WITH the employees that will be working in the process) and THEN the employees play a major role in improvement. To portray this as “command-and-control” seems a bit misguided in an attempt to slam Womack and Jones. I think Seddon is selectively quoting Womack and Jones to try to make them look bad.
I’ve learned from Toyota people, and books like Toyota Talent: Developing Your People the Toyota Way, that standardization is a spectrum. You standardize the things that matter for quality or safety or service. And the “you” in that equation is the people doing the work (yes, this is what Taiichi Ohno taught). That’s how I’ve taught and practiced Lean in hospitals and so do many others… but, again, Seddon wants to paint all “Lean” people as a bunch of command-and-control “toolheads.”
It’s a shame that John Seddon lets his name calling and bad attitude toward others get in the way of some good points he has to make. Being flat out wrong and accusing Womack and Jones of inventing a bit of Lean history (Ohno’s statement) is just one example of that unbecoming behavior. The bad attitude detracts from what might otherwise be some helpful ideas.
I’ve resisted writing about this whole “Lean v. Seddon” squabble, the fight that he’s been picking, as I try to remind myself of an old Northwestern University Marching Band football cheer (when the team was really bad): “Ignore them, ignore them, maybe they’ll go away” (referring to the other team. I’ve tried ignoring Seddon and his followers, but in this instance I decided I would finally speak out.