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Bruce Hamilton

Quality Insider

Dead See Scrolls

Technical problems are always easier to solve than people problems

Published: Monday, December 8, 2014 - 01:00

I recently participated in the AME conference in Jacksonville, Florida, a terrific rally for manufacturing excellence with the tongue-twisting theme, “Strategic Success Through People-Powered Excellence.”

I had a small role on a keynote panel that attempted to answer questions from attendees relating to generating the “people power” needed for strategic success. The session evoked a sense of déjà vu because the challenge to get everyone actively engaged in improvement—referred to in pre-lean times as total employee involvement or TEI—has resurfaced, after nearly three decades of dormancy, under the heading of people-powered excellence. I thought to myself, “This is a good thing that the lean transformation discussion has moved to the social part of lean, but why has it taken so long to resurface?”

When the panel discussion concluded, I retreated to further reflection: Maybe there never was a social part of lean, only a set of techniques to be implemented and layered over a traditional organizational structure that valued only a few “thinkers” and treated everyone else as expendable “doers.” Maybe this was why the focus shifted during the early ’90s from total employee involvement to some employee involvement: blitz kaizen teams and Black Belts and subject matter experts and value stream leaders, none of which existed during the pre-lean era. Maybe the total part was just too hard or too foreign, so we retreated to our caste system of thinkers and doers, and glommed onto the technical part of the Toyota Production System (TPS). Technical problems, after all, are always so much easier to solve than people problems.

ideabookDuring the late ’80s, Productivity Press (at the time the leader in bringing TPS thinking to the United States, and now known as CRC Press) published an excellent “TEI Newsletter,” a resource that provided tremendous insight about creating the environment that we now refer to as people-powered excellence. I have all the old issues, but there is no reference to the newsletter on the Internet, and no reference to TEI in the popular Lean Lexicon (Lean Enterprise Institute, 2014) or any other glossary I researched. The acronym and what it stands for have apparently been expunged from our collective lean consciousness.

For those of you who’d like to revisit this prehistoric concept, I recommend The Idea Book, written in 1998 by the Japan Human Relations Association. The book (once published by CRC Press) is now out of print, but available on Amazon for $0.01.

theoryzDigging farther into the pre-lean period, you’ll find William Ouchi’s seminal Theory Z, a dissertation penned in 1982 about creating a management system that stimulates employee engagement and loyalty. This book came to mind during my keynote panel discussion. I wondered how many of the 1,500 people in the room had ever heard of it. Theory Z is also out of print and also available on Amazon for $0.01. Ouchi’s book is largely reflective of W. Edwards Deming’s thinking, and is still very important reading.

My post-panel musings caused me to venture to the AME exhibitors area for a visit to the CRC Press booth to peruse its latest offerings. Nearly all of the display was composed of technical how-to books: 5S, A3, 3P, kaizen events, policy deployment, value streaming for this and that, and a host of “Lean for...” texts (Lean for Sales, Lean for Healthcare, Lean for Accounting).

I asked the salesperson, “Do you still publish Ohno’s and Shingo’s books? I don’t see them here.”  

He replied, “Yes we do, but we only bring new books to the conference.” (Shingo’s 1988 book, Non-Stock Production, is happily still in print, if not on the shelves.) As he answered, I recalled a warning from Shigeo Shingo that we should “not confuse means with ends;” for example, don’t think of 5S as an end in itself, but as a means to a higher purpose. All I saw for sale, however, was means-type texts from latter-day disciples. Apparently the works from the likes of Shingo and Ohno and Ouchi have become more like the Dead Sea scrolls: They still exist, but almost nobody reads them anymore. Call them the Dead See Scrolls to disambiguate.


About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change; and he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an on-going reflection on lean philosophy and practices with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.