Seth Godin Catches All Manufacturers, Unfairly, in his “Factory Thinking” Net


I really like Seth Godin's writing – his blog on marketing is one that I have followed regularly for years and his book Purple Cow is a fun read about creating a service or product that delights and wows your customers. He's mentioned Lean before (and gotten it somewhat wrong at times) and now he's written a  piece that, unfortunately, defames factories with a broad brush description of “factory thinking.” I'll tell you why I think he's dead wrong this time about factories and improvement.

I think Godin is like many business leaders who have never (or rarely set foot in a factory). Many healthcare leaders have never been in a factory either. They don't have a good understanding of factories and they don't have a good appreciation for what makes a “good” factory or a “bad one.”

Those outside of manufacturing often think of factories as cold, mechanistic places where simpletons crank out thousands of copies of the same thing over and over again. People often feel superior by demeaning or misrepresenting an industry that's yesterday's news or something of a long-ago era, like manufacturing. “You see, what we do here is creative and unique” is something people might say in hospitals or ad agencies.

The reality of manufacturing is that a factory is not just a technical place, it is a social system. People are the critical piece of a good factory, even those that are highly automated. Toyota's expression of “building people before building cars” speaks to the importance they place on developing people and developing leaders – their people are the difference. A factory is not a machine – it is a social environment where leadership makes all of the difference between a good factory and an underperforming one.

Are some factories brutal awful places where safety standards and common decency are ignored? Sure, but the same sort of awful behavior and bad mindsets can be seen in a hospital from time to time.

Godin slams all of the good people in manufacturing with this comment:

Factories don't have to make stuff… they're any business that focuses on doing what it did yesterday, but cheaper and faster.) It turns out that factory thinking is part of a race to the bottom, to be the cheapest, the easiest place to pollute, the workforce that will take what it can get.

Doing what you did yesterday, but cheaper and faster…. what about improving quality, Seth? You don't think factories are trying to improve quality every day? Shouldn't EVERY type of organization focus on improvement, including hospitals??

I'm not sure what Godin means by “factory thinking” being an inevitable “race to the bottom” – it sounds like he's criticizing BAD manufacturers. Why paint with such a broad brush?   Our best factories, including big names like Toyota and little names like VIBCO and FastCap are focused on doing the right things for their customers, their employees, and the environment. (An aside on Toyota, for all of their recent quality disasters, nobody has accused the FACTORY of creating these problems – this was a product design and executive leadership problem).

Godin's apparent bias that “factories are bad” is understandable based on where he grew up:

I grew up not too far from the  Love Canal. It's a world famous toxic waste dump. While it helped the short tem profits of Hooker, the chemical company that dumped there,

He's right to criticize companies like Hooker or others who have polluted and been irresponsible. But it's hardly true to say all manufacturers are like this. My grandparents lived in Flint, Michigan and northeastern Ohio. I've seen way too many closed-down factories and crumbling communities, but that doesn't mean that I think all manufacturers care about is firing people and closing down plants.

Godin paints an alternative to “factory thinking” – he doesn't name it, but I'll call it “professional thinking,” as it's obviously far more advanced than anything a factory rat could come up with.

  • Investing in training the workforce to solve interesting problems, so they can work at just about any job.
  • Maintaining infrastructure, safety and civil rights so we can create a community where talented people and the entrepreneurs who hire them (two groups that can live wherever they choose) would choose to live there.
  • Reward and celebrate the scientific process that leads to scalable breakthroughs, productivity and a stable path to the future.
  • Spend community (our) money on services and infrastructure that help successful organizations and families thrive.

Ironically, lean companies do all of those four things. They invest in people and help build their improvement and problem solving skills (like Toyota, FastCap, and VIBCO). These companies create a culture where factory employees can be creative and even entrepreneurial. They reward those who follow the scientific method and PDCA improvement cycles. They focus on the community, such as Toyota and others who are working toward “zero-landfill” factories and dedicating employee time to volunteer in the community (as Toyota did instead of laying off workers during the 2008-2009 drop in sales ).

Our best lean hospitals also encompass that type of thinking, all four of those points that Seth makes.

There's no such thing as generalized “factory thinking” and “professional thinking” – there's just good thinking and bad thinking. My message to Seth Godin is to not slam an entire industry. If he went to Rhode Island and visited VIBCO, he'd learn an important lesson about the good thinking that occurs there.

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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.


    • Thanks. I don’t know anything about farms, so it would be silly for me to rip pre-industrial “farm thinking” eh? I’m sure there have been a lot of advances in how good farms operate since the 1800s.

  1. Sad to see someone as influential as Seth Godin whiff completely. I have been to VIBCO’s shop in RI and it is an amazing place. Since I am a white collar guy, I focused on their culture in the offices. Even there, in “professional” cubicle space, people were innovative, energetic and enthusiastic. We need to eliminate this notion that the factory and the office are somehow separate entities with different cultures that necessitate different forms of management. Wherever work is being done, it s being done by people, and all people enjoy using their intellect and emotion in their work, and being respected for doing their work well.

    • Yes, agree David. Good factory management is like good office management is like good healthcare management. I agree with Seth’s four points of what a culture and environment should ideally be… but the construct he created to get there is a “whiff.”

  2. Good to call Seth on this Mark. I recently shepherded a group of healthcare managers on a site visit to an auto supplier in southern Ontario. It was learning tourism. They were blown away. Some of them couldn’t see past the difference – that is, “we don’t make widgets”. But those who looked at the plain fact that this was a group of people aligned to produce high quality saw clearly how far they need to go to even come close. Sadly, the tourism wore off and the momentum of status quo overwhelmed their development. I bet almost every community in North America has a manufacturer or other business entity within 50 miles who they can learn from and such a partnership would go a long way.

  3. I really enjoy Seth Godin. However, he missed it on that one. As I was reading over the bullet points of what factories could do, I was thinking “we already do this stuff”.

    Oh well… no one is perfect. Better luck next time Seth!

  4. Nice post Mark.

    A shame from someone that wrote the Purple Cow to make such generalizations about an industry. However, it seems to be mainstream thinking. However, these same generalizations about manufacturing exist in many other communities which can be noted in a few of my recent Podcasts and twitter threads.

    They all want to say, we are different from manufacturing: “We don’t make 10K of this and 100K of this.” Well, very few of us do. Specialization, Customization, Innovation and shortened Supply Chains happen to be bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. and enabling us to compete in the world economy. It is our Purple Cow! Gee, Seth you wrote the book?

    P.S. Seth, if you truly believe these things about manufacturing would you remove my picture from the inside jacket of Tribes.

  5. I still can’t believe what I read in Godin’s blog post about factories and I really hope that the number of folks who share this point of view are few. Thanks for bringing his comments forward and for your insightful comments.

    “…. capital isn’t driving our economy any longer, innovation by unique people is.”

    No matter how one slices it or dices it, the end result of innovation is a monetary transaction between two, or more, parties. Understandably, many try to place distance between certain transactions that are personally bothersome- cattle slaughtering, or coal mining to name just two- and those which are less threatening such as social network sites which are paid for gathering data about users for marketing purposes.

    Unfortunately, this discretion in one’s lifestyle can lead to hypocrisy.

    “…Spend community (our) money on services and infrastructure that help successful organizations and families thrive.”

    Godin’s conceit truly amazes me: a conceit that separates the maintenance of hard ‘infrastructure’ from the factory that is required to create al of those parts and components in the first place. I imagine that roads and bridges will magically appear whenever needed. Or, whenever an intelligent software program says, ‘It’s time!’

    The high speed rail in Obama’s vision of Future America is not likely to be created by those faster internet connections or that free-form innovative thinking that our president is given to preaching about. Rather, it will be poured from a crucible into a continuous caster, quenched, then rolled into railhead, plate, coil stock and many other shapes- all by factory people whose jobs are almost as technical as that of the codehead sitting in an office campus somewhere editing HTML code for a website.

    Mark is correct to point out that the factories of today are social institutions which gather good folk toward a common purposes. Those dark, Dickensian ‘works’ of the past are long gone except in the minds of creative writers like Grodin.

    My grandfather owned coal mines, too, and whenever he was confronted with hypocrisy like Grodin’s he would simply say, “For every chicken sandwich there is a chicken head lying somewhere.”

    To quote Zevon: “Enjoy every sandwich.”

  6. Great article Mark. Manufacturing has enough challenges without creating further stereotypes. Lean based on value streams, shortening leadtimes and creating capacity is what we need to address. That MUST include our people.

  7. Instead of critizing Seth, I think his writing could represent the thinking of a lot many other intellectuals who are remote from the manufacturing environment. At least now the manufacturing savy can have a chance to defense its image. i would recommend this article:
    The point being that 3 layers of innovation is required to sustain the economy. Innovation on the manufacturing floor being a key piece that US is not focusing enough.

  8. I too am a fan of Seth, he has some great thoughts and insights and I look forward to his notes, everyday. It would be great if he could respond to you or anyone else who posts and clarifies his thoughts. I’ll still be following him though.

    I think he’s tried to articulate something; we all appear to agree with, especially as I read the portion of the article on “pro-business strategies” and thought well that looks and smells like lean, so he’s advocating a lean approach.

    I think it’s unfortunate that he chose the words “factory thinking” When I looked at it again he does talk of a factory being “any business that focuses on doing what it did yesterday, but cheaper and faster.”

    As lean practitioners we all know businesses (incl. real Factories) that use lean to direct them to operate faster and at lower costs, using his pro-business strategy. On the one-hand he appears to be saying, it’s wrong to drive for the outcomes we help with but then advocates the principles that many of us subscribe to.

    I’d like to offer that maybe it’s the use of the word “yesterday” that is the problem. Any business that uses lean in a one-off hit, to drive costs down and then leaves it to one-side we know won’t get it and will sow more problems for the future.

    We know we have to keep lean on its toes and keep driving forward to get the real value from the pro-business strategies he talks of and we also have to have the customer at the heart of it and do we want the customer of today or yesterday.

    It would be great if he’d come on and provide clarification though.

    • Mark,

      If you read his most recent book Linchpin, you’ll have a clearer understanding of the mindset Seth is writing from in the linked article above. To clarify, he uses factories as a catch all for any business that has got a business goal to output similar products or services for the foreseeable future. He applies this label to not only goods manufacturers, but also call centers, insurance companies, hospitals, airline pilots, etc.

      As has been noted in the comments to this rebuttal, that he reference to “cheaper and faster” is perhaps an oversimplification but it serves his meaning enough to make his point and move on. One might also add “safer and with higher quality rates” to the adjectives he assigns to factories. Regardless if Lean or other modern manufacturing processes improve quality, the fact that some businesses tend toward factory work is the major point.

      In Linchpin, Seth states in a few places that he has no desire to persuade factories away from being factories and notes his thankfulness for processes that keep efficiency and safety high and prices low. However, he spends the majority of the book making some points about what he sees as the mistreatment of every business or endeavor as a factory when he sees a lot of evidence that our economy values the people who are, on a larger scale, attempting to do something other than factory work. That is: be a linchpin. Be somebody that does things for which there is no defined process. Or, be an organization that rewards those people. Certain roles are incompatible with the linchpin because of a need for strict process enforcement. But, even within the same company as a manufacturer, you can be a linchpin that does what Seth says. I’d almost say that it’s compatible with Lean logistics, as far as the people who are finding new ways to implement it.

      Back to the article above, specifically, Seth is calling out the politicians and the governments for accommodating goods manufacturers with tax cuts or other supports (and public education) instead of supporting those who will be trading in the information and knowledge arena when they seek employment (which is where he sees the future heading, instead of increasing manufacturing roles).

      He’s also speaking to the government (and not factories or even companies) when he lists the suggested “pro-business strategies” at the end. That’s all addressed to the politicians as an alternative to propping up the manufacturing industry with financial and other forms of support.

      Obviously, there is an entire book that is behind all of this, so I am doing a terrible job of representing it in such a short space. But, I recommend the book if you haven’t read it, as it’s got a great perspective on what Seth believes should be drawn out of people. (Incidentally, “Linchpin” complements “A Whole New Mind” by Dan Pink almost perfectly, but has a unique voice and particular insights that make it worth reading as well.)

  9. Mark, enjoyed this post and the blog in general. I added your blog feed to our group on LinkedIn – WI Chapter of Product Development and Management Association. Our group has a high level of interest on Lean and your insights and discussion on healthcare as well as perspectives on manufacturing will be well received.



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