A Lean Guy Reads FORTUNE


As I was reading the latest issue of FORTUNE (October 13), I had a few Lean thoughts based on a few articles (which I can't find online at the moment).

In the “The Best Advice I Ever Got” feature, it's Bill Marriott, Chairman and CEO of the hotel company that bears his name. His advice, stated in brief:

“Ask Your Staff for Input.”

I think Bill is a Lean thinker without realizing it. When teaching courses about Standardized Work, I often cite Marriott (as quoted in Toyota Talent) when he says that having standard processes and methods is NOT about creating “mindless conformity.” As Toyota describes it, standard methods are all about eliminating the constant hum of (I think they put) the hundreds of decisions that would take place all day so you can have the mental bandwidth left to focus on the few major problems that pop up.

Marriott (and again I'm paraphrasing) said that standard methods allowed people be creative when that creativity was really needed to solve a truly unique problem. He doesn't want people asking themselves, “How should I make this bed today?” That should be standardized. But he doesn't want unthinking robots. It's brilliant. It's Lean thinking.

Back to asking for input — this is such a simple suggestion, but one that goes unfollowed in many organizations. In many organizations, the boss is under pressure to be the expert, to know the most, and to provide the answers. It might take a humility that many leaders don't have — to ask your employees what they think the answers are. If someone comes to you with a complaint or a problem, ask them, “What do you think we should do about it? Is that something you and your teammates can solve on your own? Or, do you need my help?”

Moving on, page 40 has an article titled “Audi's Clean Desk Fetish.”

There's no mention of Lean or 5S (thankfully), but they talk about Audi's new U.S. headquarters where”employees were instructted to make sure their desks were paper-free at the end of each day.”

This is the classic debate — does a messy desk inherently create “waste”?? I think you can take a good concept too far. Being a neat freak for the sake of being a neat freak doesn't do anything for me (or a business, I think).

An executive V.P. said, “We want to create a sophisticated atmosphere.”

Uh oh, I'm detecting someone who takes himself too seriously (looking at you, Johan de Nysschen). Are we looking for effectiveness and quality in our work or “sophistication”???

As you know, not that it's being done at Audi, I'm not a big fan of the ole' “tape around the keyboard” trick that's sometimes called “Lean.” What do you think?

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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. I am in the process of establishing Lean at a company that manufactures ammounition for the US and forigen military market. I am more focused on Key Process Indicator maturity than if the keyboards in the contracs office have an exact place.

    Throughput in the office and on the production floor is more improtan than if someone has to many pictures on their desks.

    At a historical reenactment this weekend I spoke with a couple of the ladies who were working the kitchen and both of them are in companies that are doing Lean implementation. Both of them are seeing the “tape around the coffee mug” situation. Also they have metrics of 5S and number of Kaizens per month.

    I see LAME implementation more now than ever before. Anyone else feel the same way?

    Martin J. Hickey

  2. It’s funny you mention the “required Kazien” metric. I’m in a large manufacturing organization in year 2 or our Lean transformation. In the first two years (and continuing next year, as I hear) we have required 2 events per year for bonus eligible employees. (Really more kaikaku than kaizen, but why split hairs, right?) There is also an issue with project selection, especially at year’s end when people are scrambling to get in their required events.

    The rationale was that doing it in year one drove awareness, year 2 drove effectiveness. I’m not sure what year 3 is supposed to bring.

    My arguement is that this (and other decisions) has created an “event Lean” culture rather than true Lean. To combat, we are working on a new structure to drive value into the events by creating a clear line of sight to our long term and annual plans.

    My perspective is that the tape around the keyboard comes from a culture being shifted without enough direction as to where it goes. It falls to the Lean/SS team to help guide the direction and build the structure to make the effort mean something. Otherwise, the “transformation” just becomes the things you have to do before you can get back to “real work.”

    Dwane Lay

  3. I agree Martin that measures like “# of kaizen events done” or “what’s your 5S score?” are pretty meaningless compared to the real measures of a company’s long-term success — quality, profit, employee satisfaction, growth, etc.


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