“Like Lean” Leadership: Presidential Hopeful Herman Cain


I first heard Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, speak back in 2004 at an event in Phoenix. I was really impressed by Cain as a speaker and as a business leader. He's now part of the crowded field of potential Republican presidential primary candidates for 2012.

I heard him on a local Dallas talk show and wanted to share a clip – not as a political statement or an endorsement of his campaign or his positions, but as a discussion of leadership in businesses or organizations.

In the clip from the Mark Davis show on WBAP, Davis asked Cain about his response during the first debate about Afghanistan.

From a Daily Caller blog post, a description of the answer:

During the debate, Cain said he would rely on “the experts and their advice and their input.” (Of all Cain's answers, this one was consistent with his business philosophy, and yet was also perhaps his most controversial answer.)

“There are some things that I am very comfortable taking a stand on,” he said, “but what I am not going to be pushed into doing is giving some preconceived idea of what I would do without having all the facts…there is information I simply do not have at my disposal.”

Read more: http://dailycaller.com/2011/05/12/herman-cain-stands-by-his-afghanistan-answer/#ixzz1MQcn0myn

Cain then said, in the Mark Davis show interview:

“It would be ludicrous of me to think I have the answer when I've been on the radio for five years.”

Here is an edited audio snippet of Cain answering the Mark Davis question about that answer, with Cain describing some of this CEO leadership experience (which I'll summarize for those who can't listen to the audio at work, etc.):

MP3 File

In part, Cain said:

“I don't have an instant grits solution for Afghanistan or Libya or any other country on the planet that we're having issues with.”

That line reminds of W. Edwards Deming telling us there's no instant pudding when it comes to business success or improvement, although Deming was referring to copying practices from other companies.

Cain also said:

“The way I have solved and approached every situation in my career, and this is what responsible leaders do – make sure we are working on the right problems, make sure we set the right priorities, make sure I surround myself with the right people…”

And elaborating on Godfather's, which was on the brink of bankruptcy when Cain took over:

“I didn't go there with all the answers. I went to Godfather's with a lot of questions and I went to the people closest to the problem in order to get their answers and that's why we were able to save that company.”

That sounds an awful lot like “Lean leadership” – go to the “gemba” (where the work is actually done), talk to the people, and show respect.

This style of leadership and good thinking isn't exclusive to Toyota and it's not strictly Japanese. It's good leadership, regardless of its origin and source and regardless of where it's put into action. Does it translate to politics? Maybe not, but it's an organization leadership style that I would clearly endorse for healthcare or a business.

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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 have been following the Herman Cain story and looking into his background and stances.

    He is in favor of abolishing the IRS and instituting (in its place) a national sales tax, called the “Fair Tax”.


    Whether it is really “fair” or not – it’s brilliant marketing. How can you be opposed to something called a “fair tax?”

    It makes me wonder if Womack and Jones had named it “Fair Manufacturing” if we would have as much controversy about lean manufacturing because of the word “lean” and how it is scary.

    I assume a national sales tax is “lean” because there’s less administrative overhead and it costs less to collect the tax revenue this way?

    Thanks for bringing this topic up for discussion.


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