Thinking is For Factories, Too


Seth's Blog: Henry Ford and the source of our fear

I really like Seth Godin's blog… but when he steps into “Lean” territory, he tends to be wrong (as he was last year).

In his recent post, he explores the history of how Ford-ism (and I'd add Taylor-ism) impacted fundamental assumptions that we hold in current-day work life. Kind of an interesting read.

But his concluding statement is fundamentally flawed:

“Obedience works fine on the well-organized, standardized factory floor. But what happens when we start using our heads, not our hands, when our collars change from blue to white?”

I emailed Seth (who always responds) and told him that he had that wrong.

A “well-organized, standardized factory floor,” such as Toyota, doesn't lend itself to “obedience.” Toyota wants its people to think — hence the “Thinking Production System” (I know, sounds like a slogan, but it's a good one.)

The concept of obedience, asking people to just do their jobs without thinking or participation in kaizen… that's not ideal in a factory, or a hospital, or any other environment. What does white collar or blue collar have to do with it? Many people, in any setting, regardless of their education level, want to have their ideas valued, they want to contribute to improvement. It's wrong to belittle blue collar workers as not being interested in that.

As managers and leaders, we have to recognize that there might be fear. We have to explicitly give employees permission to give their suggestions and to make changes. Again, this is pretty universal, be it factories or hospitals.

I do agree with Seth that insecurity and fear are bad things – they do not lead to kaizen, efficiency, or quality.

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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. Kevin, thank you for eloquently expressing this idea. I also read Seth’s blog, and have had several good email discussions with him over the years. He does sometimes tread easily on ground where he should tread warily, but he always seems to use his mistakes as a learning experience. Would that we all could do as much.

  2. Oops, this is Mark’s blog, not Kevin’s :-)

    But thanks. And I agree about the learning… I’m certainly wrong at times here on my own blog, but I consider them learning opportunities as well!

  3. I can’t understand how anyone working in a company in the US could ever want people to just do their job and not think about or propose improvements.

    I would have thought companies that feel that way would have already gone out of business!

    Utilizing everyone’s brains is a requirement to stay competitive. With US labor rates as they are, the only strategy is to outsmart your offshore competitors!

  4. Why don’t managers want people thinking and driving improvements?

    To quote “Pulp Fiction”:

    “That little sting you feel in the back of your neck… that’s pride.”

    Pride and arrogance prevent managers from listening. Small people feel threatened when others “below” them in the organization have ideas. It eliminates their excuses.

    Sad, but true. And pretty universal.

    You’d be SHOCKED about how bad the culture is in your typical hospital. Hospitals are FULL of smart people who are told to “shut up and do your job” and “quit being a troublemaker.”

    People die because of that mentality. It needs to change. Can’t wait for your hospital book to come out, Mark!!

  5. Actually, some of the most rigid, obedience-oriented places in the world have always been “white collar.” This was certainly true of the giant clerical operations–in banks, insurance companies, etc–of the pre-computer age. While most of these places were mercifully eliminated or downsized by the computer, the same kind of thing has been re-created in customer service call centers and by the excessive and mindless Taylorization of retail and banking branch outlets.


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