Elon Musk Wrongly Pooh-Poohs Process as a Substitute for Thinking


I've always been intrigued by entrepreneur (and billionaire) Elon Musk. He founded PayPal (which I have used for over ten years), founded  SpaceX (which I would love to use, but can't afford), and is the CEO of Tesla (not really the founder), the electric car maker that's now using the old NUMMI plant in California for assembly operations.

So, I had great interest in this recent WIRED magazine piece: “Elon Musk's Mission to Mars.”  He said something about “process” that caught my eye and might be good to discuss here.

Being interviewed by Chris Anderson:

Anderson:  So, how do you do it? What's your process?

Musk:  Now I have to tell you something, and I mean this in the best and most inoffensive way possible: I don't believe in process. In fact, when I interview a potential employee and he or she says that “it's all about the process,” I see that as a bad sign.

Anderson:  Oh no. I'm fired.

Musk:  The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking. You're encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Frankly, it allows you to keep people who aren't that smart, who aren't that creative.

I strongly disagree with Musk when he says, “process becomes a substitute for thinking.” I don't know how many former NUMMI / Toyota managers are now working for him at Tesla, but I'm pretty sure they would disagree with him, as well.

Now, what Musk says might be true at some companies, and that's unfortunate… maybe he thinks it shouldn't be that way.

But, when he says, “[process] allows you to keep people who aren't that smart,” maybe he is biased against process. You know, that's for the dumb, uncreative people.


Your thoughts? What's your experience in your organization? Are you able to combine process with creativity (and “kaizen”) in your organization? I see a lot of really smart people in healthcare using process (like Lean and checklists) to prevent errors and to provide a baseline for ongoing improvement, where everybody is creative and involved in kaizen.

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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. Maybe a better way to say it is that process CAN become a substitute for thinking. That’s the difference between rigid work rules and standardized work, the latter having the flexibility for improvement (which, by the way, requires thinking). Unfortunate to hear the author dismiss process out of hand. I wonder what his process is for dismissing process? :)

  2. It’s indeed a very rigid view of a process. It seems he sees a process of a set of rules that people must follow. How did he end up wit that vision on process? Got some lessons of a workflow vendor?

    A process is not rules. A process is ‘the thing’ that delivers promises to the customers of that proces. And a process needs people, information, supporting systems, facilities etc etc. to perform.

    That makes me believe that every process is unique and also makes clear that some processes need doing-people (more workflow style) and other processes rely very much on knowledgeworkers (acm style). And the latter ones are processes where the workflow isn’t even known upfront. So who says a process is a set a rules?

    But unfortunately that is what happened to the BPM industry. 453 definitions, 35765 opinions. And common sense got lost on the way.

  3. I agree with your point Mark.. Without process we can’t determine the best way to implement anything. People tend to get blamed when things go wrong – as opposed to being able to examine where the process failed. This is the same argument used often in healthcare when we say “Im a professional, I can’t be expected to follow standard guidelines”.

  4. I had this same conversation recently with a high-level executive at Texas Instruments. His research showed that engineers from high-context cultures (where process and standardization are not as important…think of driving in India, for example) tended to be great at dealing with day-to-day problems, but not as good at developing creative solutions to big problems. Conversely, engineers from low-context/highly process-oriented cultures tended to excel at creative problem-solving.

    The TI executive thought this was counterintuitive, echoing Mr. Musk’s beliefs that being process-oriented thwarts creativity. But the data supported the opposite (that being process-oriented supports creativity). Having been exposed to so much Lean literature on the topic, it made perfect sense to me that standardizing the basics frees up our minds from mundane decision-making and allows us to reach our creative potential. Glad I read all those Lean books from Liker, Womack, Graban, et al.

  5. I agree that it CAN be a substitute for thinking, IF all you want to do is maintain a standard, and not improve.

    Where I think standard process is most helpful, is that it eliminates the need to think so much about how things SHOULD be done, and frees us up to think creatively about how things COULD be done. I.e., if I don’t have to second-guess what the next step in the process is, then I can use my brain power to imagine ways to improve the process, leading to new processes that result in better outcomes.

    In Saskatchewan, our health care system is using hoshin kanri approach to strategy deployment, and as the process becomes more clear, we are seeing more “aha!” moments. When people just KNOW when the next meeting is, how they will contribute to the process, and how everyone else is working together, they can focus on contributing to the process, instead of spending time and energy worrying about the process itself. And when everyone understands the process, there are fewer questions about how decisions are being made, and the process itself ensures that the right people are involved. It’s been a huge game-changer for our health care system.

  6. A good functioning process is the never ending cumulative creation of all the stakeholders of that work flow: customers, employees, suppliers, etc. The process must be highly standardized so trends can be uncovered and the scientific method can be employed.

    Only a smart employee can improve cumulative creativity.

  7. I’m a critical care RN at a hospital where LEAN is still very new. Let me share an example of how a process view can really interfere with patient care. Keep in mind what I’m describing here is not the fault of LEAN, it’s our traditional way.

    We are supposed to put yellow non-slip socks on patients who are a high risk for falls. We have a “bundle” that says we MUST do this. Our managers tell us we have to follow the bundles or we’ll be written up. It’s management by fear. People are more scared about getting caught not following the bundle, so we shut off our brains about doing what’s right for each patient. I have a quadriplegic patient who is NOT going to ever be standing. Yet, the tyranny of the bundles says I have to put yellow socks on him. For what reason? Try explaining this to the family. It’s crazy.

    With LEAN, we are thankfully now talking about using critical thinking skills and doing what’s RIGHT for the patient, even if that goes against what’s in the bundle. We know the bundles are proven to reduce harm, but we can’t get so crazy about process that we alienate good people. I’m hopeful that LEAN will change the culture here for the better and THAT will ultimately reduce patient harm more.

  8. I’m a little late to this post, but wanted to contribute anyway.
    An organisation really needs both to innovate and continuously improve. Let’s take Blockbuster as an example. Blockbuster could have, through continuous improvement, made the best videos return process in the world.

    However, this wouldn’t have mattered because people were turning to online video streaming. Cleary the film rental industry had innovated and changed.
    However, if all the parts of a plane are not produced to the exact requirements the plane might just fall apart mid-flight. That’s if it even takes off.

    I’m a big fan of Elon, but everything we do is a process, so I’m thinking Elon probably means a standard way of working. However, in many cases a standard way of working is very beneficial. Customers can get very unhappy if every experience they have with a company is different. Imagine if your returns policy meant some customers got their money back in 2 days while others got theirs back in 3 months, you’d have to take on more staff just to handle complaints. There’s a place for creativity and a place for standardisation and a company needs both.

    Andrew Leong

  9. Just out of interested, I did a quick LinkedIn search of some people who worked at Telsa, and many of them had Lean Six Sigma qualifications. I don’t think it would be possible to work in an automotive manufacturing plant and not think in terms of processes

    Andrew Leong


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