LeanBlog Podcast #24 – Jim Womack, State of the Auto World


Episode #24 of the LeanBlog Podcast is the 2nd part of my recent conversation with Jim Womack, of the Lean Enterprise Institute. In this episode, we talk about the state of the auto industry, from the time of The Machine That Changed the World through today.

Who does Jim think is in the best shape among the “Detroit Three?” Jim also answers some questions from Lean Blog readers.

MP3 File

Show Notes and Approximate Time, Episode #24

  • 1:50 “We had some brief hopes for Ford in ‘Machine'”
  • 2:20 “Mind of Toyota” book is a Womack must-read: “it's a great book, harder than heck to read” Inside the Mind of Toyota: Management Principles for Enduring Growth
  • 3:00 Womack on GM's decline
  • 4:15 What about the Ford Atlanta plant going from most efficient to shut down? The Taurus story, original development took 7 years when Toyota was taking only 3. At least it was what the public wanted and was easier to put together than the comparable GM product.
  • 7:00 GM's political footprint is shrinking as factories are closed outside of Michigan and Ohio, while Toyota's is growing with factory expansion.
  • 9:15 BBC series on the auto industry and lean production, pulling the cord much more at Toyota, and how people were scared at the Ford plant to pull the cord (mistrust between workers and management).
  • 10:15 “If it were just a plant-on-plant competition, they [Ford] would be OK, they've learned enough… all over the company, the managers are not pulling the andon cords.”
  • 10:40 More on Ford management and the “corrupt” Ford culture
  • 12:10 How things stand with GM today, according to Jim
  • 12:50 “Ford and Chrysler have a different magnitude of problem than GM.” If not for the legacy problems, GM would be OK, not a world-beater… “not as good as they should be.”
  • 14:30 “Ford and Chrysler's problem is management.”
  • 14:45 Question from the blog, from John Hunter, “What 3 publicly traded companies have the deepest understanding and execution of Lean?” Danaher, “can't vouch for it personally….” Tried to put them in the Lean Thinking, but was escorted off the property because the President declared they had deep secrets….
  • 16:15 Article about Danaher from Business Week
  • 17:00 G.E. has been a “make the numbers” company as opposed to a “fix the company” company, says Jim. But now GE is saying they have to be like Toyota… “is there anything beyond Six Sigma or even to Six Sigma?”
  • 18:25 Lots of other little guys out there, privately held. “Wish I could point to other examples of large companies…”
  • 19:00 LEI is doing some research for how to take a traditional mass production mentality company and transition them to a lean management approach, what methods do you have to implement?
  • 20:00 “The world is pretty Dilbert-like.”
  • 20:30 “I wish I could rattle off the 14 companies who have actually done it…. No stock tips.”
  • 20:50 From Joe Wilson, what about “Lean and Mean? Do you wish you had picked a different word than Lean?
  • 21:15 “It also rhymes with green…. A word is a word, you have to pick something.” Jim meant it to describe “how to do more with less” but many have spun it into “how to do less with a whole lot less, including people.”
  • 22:00 “If lean is taken on by managers who are clueless to the real meaning, well then over time, the meaning becomes the meaning that people deduce from the behavior of those managers. I can't do anything about that.”
  • 23:00 “Lean got us out of the nationalism and ethnic focus,” that it had something to do with Japan. “Lean” was designed to focus on an objective measure of performance. (the term coined by Jon Krafcik)
  • 24:40 “Sorry that so many clueless people [made lean “mean”]… it's a lot of stupid meanness, where you try to hurt others and end up hurting yourself.” Toyota was about growth, not trying to get rid of people. “Where you get into the problem with Lean is when you have these big behemoths that are fading fast…”
  • 26:10 Jim spent a week in Australia looking at healthcare organizations… “How would Toyota run healthcare?” “Toyota treats car parts better than a hospital treats its patients, and treat people better than hospitals treat their staffs.”
  • 26:45 “We're going to bankrupt every company with our healthcare practices.”
  • 27:45 Far more than half of the visitors to the LEI website and those signing up for workshops have nothing to do with manufacturing… “How would Toyota run Starbucks?”

If you have feedback on the podcast, or any questions for me or my guests, you can email me at leanpodcast@gmail.com or you can call and leave a voicemail by calling the “Lean Line” at (817) 993-0630 or contact me via Skype id “mgraban”. Please give your location and your first name. Any comments (email or voicemail) might be used in follow ups to the podcast.

Click here for the main LeanBlog Podcast page with all previous episodes.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Great podcast. I really enjoy listening to Jim Womack’s observations. The 10-15 year perspectives on various companies is really interesting. It’s rare to see informed commentary on organizations that spans several years. I think this is where much understanding is to be found, however. The Jim Collins book “Good To Great” falls into this category as well. Most media reports on the state of the moment, or at most the trend for the past several months, which can be misleading. One of the reasons I find the Toyota story compelling is the length of time that Toyota has pursued their strategy based on their core principles.

  2. I found Jim’s comments to pretty much describe the unfortunate applications I have seen of Lean Manufacturing by my company management. I work for one of those fading behemoths – but not an auto company. If there is any positive, from my experience, it is that there are true disciples of Lean lower in the ranks trying to implement Lean as it is intended.

  3. […] Like many others engaged in this field, I can readily point to a range of specific examples.   Still, these fall short of addressing a more basic  concern raised by this question.   Despite lean’s widespread application, why aren’t shining  examples of success far more commonplace (a stark observation that Jim Womack, former head of the Lean Enterprise Institute, seemed to make in an interview  posted on LeanBlog.) […]


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