Posted on September 16, 2009 · Posted in Deming, Leadership, Lean Thoughts

“Come yourself or send no one.”

W. Edwards Deming

I’m always amazed when executives push back on the suggestion that they need to personally lead their organization’s Lean transformation. I want to respond with something along the line of, “I’m sorry, I thought you wanted to lead this organization into the future. With whom should I be talking instead?”

The implication of their push back is that “Lean is for the underlings, the serfs, the rank & file, the shop floor; not for their leaders. We’re too important.”

I am reminded of a story (possibly apocryphal) that circulated about Dr. Deming during the late 80’s. Computers manufacturers were still struggling to figure out how they were going to store data and had temporarily settled for magnetic media known as floppy disks. One of the US companies manufacturing floppy disks was Nashua Corporation, headquartered in Nashua, NH.

It is reputed that the CFO of Nashua Corp heard Dr. Deming speak at a conference in Washington, DC. The CFO returned from the conference on fire and convinced the CEO that Dr. Deming could help Nashua Corp. resolve one of its most significant problems. The CEO agreed to see Dr. Deming and to initiate conversations with him.

A letter was sent to Dr. Deming. The letter explained the company’s interest in Dr. Deming’s statistical approach and their willingness to discuss how he could help them. It was signed by the CEO and suggested a time and place for the meeting.

A few days later a reply arrived by mail. It was addressed to the CEO and stated tersely, “Come yourself or send no one.”

Why is that story significant? The answer is that Dr. Deming was a very mature (not to mention irascible) consultant at that time and his star had still not reached its zenith. He was in high demand and had no shortage of offers. What he did have was a shortage of time and he didn’t want to waste it.

Dr. Deming knew that if senior leaders weren’t willing to lead an initiative from the start, then it would be stillborn. He refused to participate in such activities. There is a similar story about him hanging up on the VP of Quality for Ford Motor Company several times before explaining the same rules to him.

The reason that executives don’t understand the significance of being the ones to lead their organization’s Lean transformation is that they fail to grasp their own importance. I know, seems crazy doesn’t it, but it’s true.

For years, Dr. Deming used to say that “85% of all problems in any organization were systemic in nature.” By that he meant that 85% of all organizational problems were the direct result of a problem with a system; e.g. the procurement system, or, the hiring system, or the Information Technology system, etc. He would go on to say that “Management owns all systems; therefore, management is responsible for 85% of all problems.” Three years before his death I heard him say, “I was wrong. It wasn’t 85%. It’s closer to 95!”

Ponder that.

If management owns 95% of all organizational problems, how can management not be deeply immersed in a transformation of those systems?

Even if lower reaches of the organization are “empowered” to resolve a problem, the resolution will only be sustained if leaders make sustainment a priority. If maintaining the gains made with lean doesn’t become an expectation and doesn’t get monitored on a routine basis, progress will flag, then stop all together.

Failing to lead, failing to hold people accountable for maintaining gains, is the organizational equivalent of pushing a large section of sand from the beach toward the sea, then walking away. Little by little the tide will shift the sand back to where it had come from. It may take an hour, a day, a week, but ultimately, the sand will return to the point of stasis. Like the tide, institutional inertia will systematically move all changed functions back to stasis.

So, what’s my message? Come yourself or send no one. If you aren’t willing to own your organization’s Lean transformation, don’t waste your time and money by instituting one.

Tough message, but a critical part of the cultural transformation on which Lean depends.

Think about it.