Leading and sustaining a culture of improvement

I have recently re-read Prof Bob Emiliani’s book, “The Triumph of Classical Management over Lean management: How tradition prevails and what to do about it. It is a reasonably heavy read, that started out as a series of blogs about Lean Leadership and culture which grew and could be bound into a book. Some of what I read in there has kept interrupting and niggling at me in my thinking over the last year or so since I first read the blogs, hence why I decided to read it again and see what reflections I find on another reading.

The book has made me think quite a bit, mostly because it dares to ask the question I have often posed myself in my head but never dared to out loud, it is an important question. Why are Leaders rarely interested in Lean? (and the other forms of progressive management and improvement approaches despite their benefits), or a Bob puts it, ‘why does Lean, as the newest form of progressive management suffer from executive disinterest?’ To answer the question, he traces the last century of progressive management from the dawn of Taylorism, through management consultancy, to mass manufacture and thence to Lean. I like his phrasing and categorisation of Lean as ‘progressive management’ as opposed to classical management (and I guess by the choice of words, laissez faire approaches and reactionary perspectives). He uses a similarly aged management theory by Veblen (1899), to do this, which is a choice I find odd, given the wide array of modern theories that could be applied. Though the advantage of doing this is to try to understand the value choices enacted as part of the origins of progressive management.

Without going into the detail of the analysis in the book, you will need to read it to know more, one of my main take aways from the book is the exploration for leaders and their workers as to ‘what counts as work?’. In Lean and other approaches, for the worker, work is that which is value added, all other work is waste, so meetings, discussions, etc etc are all waste if it is not something that ‘the customer’ would pay for. (Btw this reminds me a little of the debate between blue collar and white collar work; “it’s only real work if it makes you sweat”). But then, Bob exposes that as people are promoted they go through the ‘cloud line’ into the ‘metaphysical realm’ as a leader, then these worker rules and values no longer apply. And new leaders entering this space, perhaps because of a series of improvement successes, recognise quickly that ‘new rules’ seem to apply. These new beliefs, values, cultural and leadership practices are quickly learnt to ensure acceptance in the new space and improvement behaviours that may have helped them to ‘join the club’, are now potentially and ironically now a risk to acceptance. He notes now the general value set is that a leaders work is ‘communication and meetings’, in fact he articulates that the whole point now is to maximise freedom and time to communicate and be at meetings, events and other spaces and not to be consumed with valued added work (huh?). He talks about how this Leadership space is more about the metaphysical, the beliefs, the values, the messages to be reiterated as rituals, the ‘culture’. The theology, as opposed to the science of Leadership.

Wow, I mean, bonkers when I first read it, but then…. I kept thinking about it….. (and we only have to look at some of our national leadership during this pandemic to see where ideology trumps science).

Bob connects this long standing classical leadership value-set with a long standing view from classical management processes and values, that are arguably the antithesis of Lean values. He argues that this classical ‘separation’ of worker and leader, helps to reinforce some long standing cultural behaviours by reinforcing class separation and distinction, supports coercive interests of those in power, helps to perpetuate the status quo and institutional continuity and valorises executive prestige. Mostly the opposite values to Lean tbh. Unless of course you warp it to fit, adapting it, only using the bits that suit, wrap up downsizing, outsourcing and cost cutting into a Lean cloak. Helps to explain, for me anyway, why Lean may have so many variants, be all things to all men (mostly still men) and be so badly applied in so many places. It also helps to explain, for me, why there is such a disinterest, at a Leadership level in Lean and other variants of QI. I mean why would you Lead Lean in these conditions? No wonder many anecdotes say ‘Lean doesn’t work’, or ‘Leadership is so critical, it’s the answer, get that right, get the culture right, then Lean will ‘work’’. No wonder many of us in the Lean, QI and improvement communities get really frustrated that it is so rare for a Leader to ‘get it’ and even if they do, then to stick around to really get under the skin of these long standing classical belief systems and cultural practices.

It really makes me think and reflect, I found this book quite disturbing I suppose when I first read it. It is easy to go, ‘oh this book is bonkers’, but as I found it quite disturbing and it has nagged at me to ensure I read it again. This time I have thought harder about what of my beliefs about Lean made me have this ‘this is bonkers’ reaction, I wondered where my cheese has moved to? (To quote a long standing populist and perhaps a more classical management book). I could say, no no no, Bob, this isn’t right and sit around Haw-ing that Bob doesn’t understand a Lean or Leadership and it’s nothing to do with classical management thing or values, or even some of the critical theory thinking weaving through some of this. Or, like Hem, reflect hard and think what can I learn from this, as this problem of lack of Lean Leadership, sustaining Lean cultures is a Challenge, and maybe this different way of illuminating the problem helps us take our next Lean steps towards progressive management.

As Bob asks in the title of his book, what can we do about it? Given the risks faced by Lean leaders outlined in Bob’s book, and that many of us have faced and would recognise, I suppose I would add a little. What can we do, and how much do we want to do about it?


One comment

  1. […] Leadership routines for improvement can be bespoke or general. They can include a checklist, an audit, or items to talk about or then can incorporate questions to ask staff or patients. They can incorporate assurance and safety checks or a coaching cycle for a test of change. They can be done within a framework for all leaders at all levels. They can be flexible and tailored to you, your organisation and your challenges. They might be uncomfortable to start with, it might be hard to find the time to do them, and they might need some practice and incremental improvement. I guess changing culture is going to have a few obstacles, else it would be easy. We will really have to want to change it.. And there are lots of reasons that hold us back…. […]

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