Message to Manufacturers: Catapult the Cow


This is a guest post by Gary Conner, the author of many books focused on the “small shop” manufacturer, including:

He is also a Lean podcaster and you can find his podcast series on iTunes or by clicking here.

Here is Garry's piece:

Message to Manufacturers: Catapult the Cow, by Gary Conner:

I've yet to meet a baby boomer who hasn't seen Monty Python's movie where the inhabitants of a castle catapult a cow toward an invading military force.

While the image is familiar, most people do not know that it is based on an event documented as having happened in the 14th Century.

In 1334, Margartea Maultasch (of Tyrol) and her army encircled the castle of Hochosterwitz in Carinthia. Because of the steep terrain, a traditional storming of the castle was out of the question. They decided to starve out the inhabitants. The situation inside the castle was desperate, supplies were scarce and they were soon down to their last two bags of corn, and one skinny cow.

The commander of the castle took desperate action, he slaughtered the cow and filled it with the corn, ordering his troops to catapult the dead cow over the wall toward the enemy. The invading hordes interpreted this as a clear message that starving them out was useless; obviously they had food to waste. The invaders picked up and moved on.

What does this have to do with lean manufacturing?

For the last few months we have seen over 100,000 jobs lost just in the automotive industry. Our economy is on the brink of implosion, evidenced by an urgent effort to shore up a once powerful system.

Unless we apply significant and radical approaches to the way we run manufacturing businesses we will see ourselves “starved out”.

The systems that worked for our dads and granddads are no longer a viable approach. There is a risk that our current and future generations have been lulled to sleep by the relative insulation of unique capabilities that our parents and grandparents had. After World War II the manufacturing capabilities of the rest of the world had been dismantled, destroyed or modified to support the war efforts. Our parents and grandparents had the market cornered. Customers were beating down their doors to get product manufactured.

That condition has changed dramatically.

Now it is a “ME TOO” marketplace. In the current environment, we compete with countries who have not only rebuilt their manufacturing capabilities, but have done so using techniques like “Lean Manufacturing”, based on the Toyota Production System model. Our competitors may have the additional advantage of paying significantly lower wages, providing little or no benefits, and they may ignore the long term cost of unsafe working conditions or environmental concerns.

All of which contributes to an unfair and unlevel playing field.

In order to compete responsibly we cannot lower our standards regarding worker safety, diminish our concern for the environment, or hope to retain skilled team members without rewarding them financially.

But we do have to do something. As Monty Python would say “Something Completely Different!”

We have to end the “We – Them”, management by the old rules methodology. We have to eliminate the old school “economic order quantity”, bigger is better mentality that has poisoned our logic over the past one hundred years.

We have had thirty years to learn from Toyota, John Deere, Pella Windows and other world class companies how to adopt and adapt our Sales, Order entry, Purchasing, Scheduling, Manufacturing and Delivery systems, but the majority of the companies I visit stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that there is a better way. They take the stance that “If it were good enough or Dad and Granddad, then it's good enough for me!”

Lean manufacturing is no longer an option. And it doesn't apply just to manufacturing. The entire enterprise must adopt these principles; and soon.

We have to be willing to catapult the cow, try something completely unexpected in order to get the result we want. I am not recommending that you throw the entire company over the wall.

Begin with a model line. Take 20-25% of your company, a significant percentage, and begin applying world class (lean) manufacturing principles. Start small but start!

My message; my warning to all manufacturers is this: If we wait six months we will be six months further behind.

There are many companies who have decided not to wait for someone else to bail them out. They are taking decisive action. Some regions are putting together “high performance consortiums” to pool resources, share knowledge, build networks and seek the common good for all the manufacturers in their region.

The recent effort by the government to bail out the failing economy is like handing out money to compulsive gamblers as they enter casinos in Las Vegas. Dr. Phil said it best: “You cannot solve money problems with money!” When an individual is prone to overspend and squander their resources, giving them money only enables the bad behavior. They have to be retrained, reprogrammed to think ahead, plan and see the cause and effect of their actions.

In manufacturing we have been taught for decades that we must build large quantities using shared resources, huge machines and costly tracking systems in order to cover the cost of enormous set-up times on complicated equipment. World class companies are showing us that there is a different path; Smaller lot sizes, right sized equipment, smaller value stream structure, visual signals, quick set-ups and high velocity that requires little of no tracking.

The light at the end of the tunnel is not in the form of a bailout, it involves hard work, but nothing worth having is ever easy to obtain.

The good news is that over the past 15 years I have worked with companies who have decided not to wait for a handout. They have begun the hard work of transforming their operations into recession resistant enterprises. One food processing plant recently conducted a kaizen event reducing the number of people required on one line from 37 to 25. Over the two shifts this resulted in a $900,000 labor savings. Important to note that no one lost their job, they were reassigned to other departments and to other kaizen teams.

I wish you the best in your world class journey.

Gary Conner

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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. Hi Gary,

    Really enjoyed the analogy with Monty Python & the catapulting cow. These are tough time and getting tougher by the day and the thought that we shouldn't despair there is always a way to overcome adversity was presented in a very compelling way.

    I must admit to a huge amount of sadness when I hear of the demise of the Big 3, not so much the corporate structure but more the folk involved, as I sit many miles from the action it is hard to imagine what life must be like inside operation given the dire situation faced – GM's call for multi billion $ bailing out 'cos they will be out of cash in Jan'09.
    There must be a sense like those inside the Hochosterwitz castle of desperate measures being needed, fortunately for them the courage and inspiration came from their leader and the plan worked.
    I wonder though what will be the affect of the bail out? Should it take place what will occur within those operations and their related support industries and communities to prevent ever having to be in the same situation again?

    Another Python quote "Always Look on the Bright Side" may not be enough?

    Thanks for the thought provoking blog contribution.



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