Featured Article - February 2007
Too Much Selfish Thinking
By Bob Emiliani | printable version
The Lean community has struggled for many years to gain buy-in from senior executives in large corporations. Perhaps it's been so hard because there is too much selfish thinking and not enough Lean thinking. If so, what countermeasures can be applied?
There is no doubt that Lean management has been mischaracterized as a “manufacturing thing” for most of the last 30 years, with a nearly singular focus on continuous improvement and the use Lean tools . This has been a principal factor that has limited the application of Lean principles and practices beyond operations, and also, of course, into services businesses, government, non-profits, etc. It also helps explain why nearly 30 years after Lean came to America there are only a few big businesses that practice Lean management pretty well. Shouldn’t there be many more?
Taiichi Ohno told us that Lean (TPS) was a management system in 1988 . Yet it is only within the last few years that the larger community of Lean practitioners has started to realize this. However, a very small community of president and CEO-level Lean practitioners at The Jacobs Manufacturing Company and The Wiremold Company in Connecticut knew this in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s . For nearly 20 years they, and some others, have been passionate advocates of Lean as a management system, yet few presidents or CEOs of big companies have listened .
The question is how do you get presidents and CEOs on board? The general nature of the problem is one of trying to get people to think and work differently – to better serve the interests of customers first, as well as employees, investors, suppliers, and even management itself. It’s definitely not a new problem.
The late 1800’s and early 1900’s were a time in which industrial management practices underwent a transformation to “modern methods” of management based upon the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor  and others. Scientific Management, as it was called, involved the application of the scientific method to understand business problems and improve workplace efficiency. Previously, most managers lacked quantitative data and information and thus often relied on hunches and educated guessed to manage their business. By the early 1900’s, Scientific Management evolved into “efficiency engineering” with its main focus being optimization of a single process (i.e. point optimization), and then later “industrial engineering” whose focus expanded to system optimization – i.e. improvement of interrelated processes.
Dexter Kimball, in his 1913 book Principles of Industrial Organization  – an early text on industrial engineering and management – tackled the problem of how to get people to think and work differently. He, like Taylor and many others, knew that overcoming resistance was the key to achieving enterprise-wide improvements. While Kimball’s focus was to convince laborers of the benefits of using modern methods to improve efficiency and effectiveness, the same problem existed for top management [5,7,8]. Most senior managers were dismissive of Scientific Management, much to the chagrin of its advocates who could see so clearly the wide-ranging benefits of process improvement.
The problem the industrial engineering community faced 100 years ago is largely the same as that faced by the Lean community today.
Kimball said in his book (insert the word “CEO” or “manager” for “worker”):
"Why does the worker naturally resist these new methods? First, because the great majority of men are naturally afraid of all new things that they do not understand and the effects they cannot clearly foresee...
Secondly, the worker may object to these new methods because of his inherent inertia. The workman who has once learned and long practiced certain methods of doing work is seldom willing to admit that a better way may be devised if these ways appear to be radically different from those to which he is accustomed.
And lastly, he naturally opposes these new methods because his own experience and his inherited point of view naturally lead him to suspect any new methods that promise increased remuneration [i.e. better outcomes] for increased efforts."
Kimball did not present a formal root cause analysis to support his conclusion that people are: 1) afraid of new things, 2) inherently resistant to new methods, and 3) suspicious that they might not be rewarded for their efforts. But if you do a fishbone diagram, these three items should appear.
Kimball's countermeasures were:
"The first two objections may, perhaps, be removed by educational methods but the third is deep rooted... The basis of this objection is distrust, and the root of distrust is most usually selfishness... [overcoming this involves] the application of the ‘fair deal’ on the part of all concerned."
In this explanation, he cites selfishness as a principal root cause of distrust, but items 1) and 2), above, are also related to selfishness. So let’s focus exclusively on selfishness, recognizing that there are other factors, and see where it takes us.
Now is selfishness a root cause or a symptom? Let’s start by asking: “Who teaches us about selfishness and when?” The obvious answer is our parents, who teach us about the antithesis of selfishness – sharing – in our earliest years through at least high school. We also learn about selfishness from our grade school teachers, the school books we read, and in religious instruction. The aim of all this training is to teach us that selfishness is bad and that sharing is the better value to embody. It’s important to note that for most young people, teachings about sharing are probably intermittent; that is, sharing is typically reinforced only when we fail to share.
After we are educated in school we enter a second phase of life: our adult life. A major part of our adult life is our working life; the time and effort we apply at work to earn a living. The workplace is a very serious setting, as our livelihood and quality of life depends on our ability to fit in and make meaningful workplace contributions over a 30 or 40 years. Now let’s ask the same question: “Who teaches us about selfishness and when?”
Many of us are exposed to different values and standards of conduct at work than what we experienced growing up at home. This is partly reflected in the popular sayings that we often hear at work: “It’s a dog- eat-dog world;” “I don’t care how you do it, just get it done;” “Failure is not an option;” and “We play to win.” Lots people say these things, including senior managers to whom we are likely to listen. These sayings reinforce the serious nature of the workplace, and are also indicative of a less sharing and thus more selfish environment.
There are other important influences such as business publications – The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, and Fortune magazine – which many senior managers read. These often feature articles of senior managers who have successfully achieved some manner of point optimization. They often speak highly of the “tough guy, take no prisoners” type of leaders in the mold of “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap and Linda Wachner, or Carlos Ghosn and Jack Welch. If these publications approve of their approach to business, management, and leadership, why shouldn’t we?
Another source that can greatly influence us is our college professors, perhaps especially so if we have earned an undergraduate or graduate degree from a business school. Among the most influential professors in the last 20-30 years have been those who teach economics and finance – lots of stuff related to point optimization. So we can see there are many influences that impinge upon us which shape our thinking and actions as managers.
Is it reasonable to say we are more likely to be selfish at work? Yes, it probably is. Just think of the internal battles that regularly take place between departments or company divisions over budgets, staffing, space, capital equipment, etc. Think too about the internal systems, processes, and metrics within each functional area that drive point optimization, day in and day out. And what about the external battles between corporations in which ethical and legal lines (e.g. anti-trust) are sometimes crossed. Aren’t these all forms of selfish individual or corporate behavior? Importantly, these teachings are not intermittent. Instead, they are reinforced just about every day, and in a setting where we may have no other choice but to conform to the inefficiency and waste brought upon us by selfishness.
To many managers, selfishness may make more sense than sharing given the reality they experience every day at work. Beyond making sense, selfishness may be a practical response to harsh corporate environments. And it may even be necessary response, for if their supervisor or CEO is selfish and protective of his or her interests, then it would be wise from the perspective of survival to behave the exact same way. The workplace is obviously a very different type of environment than the home with respect to sharing.
In some ways we are all selfish, either as individuals or as managers, whether at work or at home. We all want to perpetuate ourselves and prosper. So perhaps it is better to think of selfishness as a spectrum with a low end and a high end. From the standpoint of values and integrity, it would be better to be at the low end or at least near the low end on the spectrum to avoid causing harm.
According to industrial psychologists, many managers exhibit sociopathic (also called psychopathic) behaviors . It means to behave in ways that are anti-social: i.e. self-centered on one’s own needs and lack of concern for how their behavior affects others. Selfishness may simply be a symptom that is rooted in the perceived benefits of point optimization of self, department, division, or company.
We all know the unfortunate but popular phrase: “Lean and Mean.” It accurately portrays defective derivative forms of Lean – in essence, shortcuts (i.e. “cheats”) – used by many managers over the years which result in zero-sum outcomes. That is to say, there must be winners and losers, as in: “Heads I win, tails you lose.” Lean is indeed mean when the company and its managers reap the benefits of workers efforts to eliminate waste and they lay them off. Is that not sociopathic behavior at the high end of the spectrum?
In contrast, managers who have a correct understanding of Lean do not favor point optimization. They like to improve the entire system, one step at a time. And they seek non-zero sum outcomes that have many winners and no losers .
Lean management is fundamentally rooted in the practical, not idealistic, view that thoughtful sharing leads to greater prosperity and better outcomes. The objective is to promote desired reciprocal behaviors within the network of stakeholders – i.e. get people to work with you rather than against you – to enable learning in order to reduce system costs and continuously improve quality, flexibility, and innovation .
Examples of sharing in Lean management abound. Executives who understand Lean management well exhibit the following unselfish behaviors:
Have profit-sharing programs
Don’t mind getting their hands dirty
Like to experiment via kaizen
Are humble and have little interest in the trappings of executive life
They like to share information, ideas, and their knowledge
Look for similarities instead of amplifying differences
Are externally focused, customer first, not themselves first
View mistakes and problems as ways we can improve, vs. blaming others which is selfish
Seek to cooperate with labor, suppliers, etc., and mutually prosper
Have reward systems based on teamwork
Support standardizations vs. “do your own thing”
Lower barriers to communication between management and associates
View associates as assets, not costs to be eliminated
Act as teachers
Have a broader sense of purpose vs. a narrow focus on making money
Believe in mutual trust
Have respect for people
There’s more… Don’t forget the common trait among Lean people to freely share their success, failures, and new techniques, to collaborate, and to give credit where credit is due. Recall the three principles of kaizen: 1) process and results, 2) systemic thinking, and 3) non-blaming, non-judgmental . These encourage sharing, while the results-focused approach common in business today encourages hoarding. Andon lights, used correctly, identify problems shared by the entire team, not just one worker or supervisor. Kaizen teams are cross-functional, which indicates problems belong to the company, not one individual or department. Lastly, what about sharing of knowledge and cost savings between a Lean company and its suppliers ? Need I go on?
The concept and practice of sharing is deeply embedded in Lean management. Putting the “Respect for People” principle into daily practice is an unselfish act that makes the other principle, “Continuous Improvement,” possible. Unselfish human behaviors lead to unselfish corporate behaviors, which lead to a wide range of new opportunities and non-zero sum outcomes that most managers have great difficulty comprehending.
Lean management must be fundamentally unappealing, perhaps even repulsive, to senior managers who exhibit strong selfish characteristics and who have spent their career winning at point optimization. But that’s not all that can be seen as unappealing.
Lean is learning and practice intensive. It takes years to understand the many nuances and interconnections between Lean principles, tools, practices, and the various internal and external stakeholders that interact with a business. That can be a turn-off to managers who have really big egos (again, selfish) who think they know it all (selfish, again). It requires undoing a lot of expensive and time-consuming learning that seemed to be very useful for many years. Why bother? Look where it got them. Most managers, it seems, are not willing to let go of what they know – yet another selfish behavior.
So let’s return the problem which is, after nearly 30 years there are few big businesses that practice Lean well. A root cause for this problem is the belief among senior leaders that point optimization of self, department, division, or company is best. What countermeasures can be applied to correct this mistaken belief ?
Countermeasure #1. Recall Kimball’s first countermeasure, education. This seems to be an appropriate countermeasure, though we might be dissatisfied with how long it takes to bear fruit given the way we currently conceptualize and practice educating people – courses, training sessions, books, videos, simulations, etc. However, isn’t it somewhat predictable that these types of Lean education would be mostly ineffective at changing someone’s belief? After all, this educational approach can appear theoretical to management practitioners. It is certainly worthwhile to continue efforts to educate people along these lines for future leadership positions , but it is clearly insufficient. Though, it would help to also teach managers the importance and periodic need to unlearn, as professionals in others fields understand the need to do when better information comes along – for example, in science and engineering  – to avoid repeating errors.
Countermeasure #2. Kimball’s second countermeasure was “…the application of the ‘fair deal’ on the part of all concerned." This countermeasure circles back onto the problem at hand, namely that managers who perceive point optimization to be the preferred approach are not likely to be interested in fair deals. However, as the executive is the occupant of a higher position and perhaps better educated than the worker, they should at minimum be able to get the fundamentals right such as recognizing unfairness as a wasteful repeat error. They could also recognize the sensibility of responding to the pull of workers desires for fair deals. Perhaps an additional countermeasure would be for top managers adopt physicians’ oath: “First, do no harm” .
Countermeasure #3. One thing we do know for certain is that people learn Lean principles and practices mostly by doing, and also that most executives do not participate in kaizen. Seeing is believing. But if top managers don’t see, then how can they believe? So the route to changing the beliefs that lead to selfish behaviors gives us the third countermeasure: engage senior managers in a steady stream of individual and group kaizen [14,18]. This has historically been difficult to do, so the causes of non-participation need to be closely studied. But if they do participate, among the many things they will learn is their environment is less resource constrained then they think – which makes sharing much less of a problem.
Countermeasure #4. Of all the presidents and CEOs in the top 2000 U.S. corporations, there has to be at least one hundred who for many years have been unhappy with how business is generally conducted. They know in their heart there must be better ways to manage which are more consistent with their personal beliefs about sharing, cooperation, making system-wide improvements, improving human relations, etc., but don’t know what to do or think it’s just too hard to do. The fourth countermeasure would be to find those types of senior leaders and apply countermeasures 1, 2, and 3.
Lastly, an inescapable fact is that Lean management involves daily learning and never-ending practice . Senior managers have to be hungry to learn and also eager to apply their new knowledge at work. Unfortunately there probably isn’t much that can be done with the large population of presidents and CEOs who are not interested in Lean. They can’t be forced to learn Lean management, unless perhaps customers or employees demand it. Even then, however, it will be an uphill struggle because current leadership practice, supported by business school teachings over the last 30 years , encourages many beliefs and behaviors that are the opposite those needed to correctly practice Lean management.
M.L. “Bob” Emiliani is a faculty member in the School of Technology at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn. and President of The Center for Lean Business Management, LLC. Before joining CCSU, Bob worked for 20 years in manufacturing and service industries, and has implemented Lean principles and practices on the manufacturing shop floor, in supply networks, and in higher education. Bob is the principal author of the 2003 Shingo Prize winning book Better Thinking, Better Results, a detailed case study and analysis of The Wiremold Company’s Lean transformation from 1991 to 2001. For more information, please visit http://www.theclbm.com. Copyright © 2007 by The CLBM, LLC.
 See “Origins of Lean Management in America: The Role of Connecticut Businesses”, by M.L. Emiliani, Journal of Management History,
Vol. 12, No. 2, pp. 167-184 2006, http://www.theclbm.com/articles/lean_in_conn.pdf
 Ohno said: “Companies make a big mistake in implementing the Toyota production system thinking that it is just a production method.
The Toyota production method won't work unless it is used as an overall management system… those who decide to implement the
Toyota production system must be fully committed. If you try to adopt only the ‘good parts’, you'll fail.” T. Ohno in NPS: New Production
System, by I. Shinohara, Productivity Press, Cambridge, MA, 1988, p. 153 and 155.
 B. Emiliani, with D. Stec, L. Grasso, and J. Stodder, Better Thinking, Better Results: Using the Power of Lean as a Total Business
Solution, The CLBM, LLC, Kensington, Conn., 2003, http://www.theclbm.com/btbr.html
 O.J. Fiume and A. Byrne, personal communication.
 F.W. Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 1911. A much better expression of
Taylor’s thinking on Scientific Management is contained in his testimony to Congress in 25-30 January 1912. In his testimony, he
repeatedly noted that the biggest challenge was management’s resistance to obtaining a “new mental attitude,” and that being 90% of
the problem. Taylor said there could be no Scientific Management if the new mental attitude did not exist among the top managers of
a company. See Scientific Management: Comprising Shop Management, Principles of Scientific Management, Testimony Before the
House Committee, F.W. Taylor, with Foreword by Harlow S. Person, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, NY, 1947
 D. Kimball, Principles of Industrial Organization, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, NY, 1913, pp. 264-265.
 C.E. Knoeppel, Installing Efficiency Methods, The Engineering Magazine, New York, NY, 1917.
 W. Basset, Taking the Guesswork Out of Business, The B.C Forbes Publishing Company, New York, NY, 1924. Basset’s book begins
with a Preface by Samuel Crowther, a noted business journalist who co-authored Henry Fords books: My Life and Work (1922) and
Today and Tomorrow (1926). Crowther says: “The biggest thing we have learned about industry in the last twenty-odd years is that
the work mustflow as continuously as a river flows from its source to the sea… Henry Ford found that it paid to do away with the little
dams that used to be inside a business and to keep the work flowing through the factory.” (p. v)
 P. Kaihla, “Getting Inside the Boss’s Head,” Business 2.0, pp. 49-51, Vol. 4, No. 10, November 2003,
http://money.cnn.com/magazines/business2/business2_archive/2003/11/01/351936/index.htm. See also A. Deutschman, “Is Your Boss
a Psychopath?,” Fast Company, July 2005, p. 44, http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/96/open_boss.html
 In the imperfect real world there may indeed be some losers, but skilled Lean managers seek to reduce their numbers and also
minimize their pain.
 Promoting opportunistic behaviors and conflict among network participants is wasteful, self-defeating, and just plain stupid.
See References 1, 3, and 13 for guidance on how to avoid such problems.
 M. Imai, “Kaizen Seminar”, Hartford Graduate Center, Hartford, Conn., May 1988.
 J. Dyer and K. Nobeoka, “Creating and Managing a High Performance Knowledge-Sharing Network: They Toyota Case,” Strategic
Management Journal, Vol. 21, pp. 345-367, 2000.
 For more on the differences in beliefs between conventional managers and Lean managers, see "Linking Leaders' Beliefs to Their
Behaviors and Competencies," M.L. Emiliani, Management Decision, Vol. 41, No. 9, 2003, pp. 893-910.
 See http://www.teachinglean.org for information on the network of college educators bringing Lean into the classroom.
 It seems that scientists and engineers are more willing to unlearn important concepts or practices because they believe the new
knowledge will help them do their jobs better. In contrast, many senior managers seem to dislike unlearning important concepts or
practices because they are not sure if the new knowledge will help them do their job better.
 M.L. Emiliani, “The Oath of Management,” Management Decision, Vol. 38, No. 4, 2000, pp. 261-262.
 M.L. Emiliani and D.J. Stec, "Using Value Stream Maps to Improve Leadership," Leadership and Organizational Development Journal,
Vol. 25, No. 8, pp. 622-645, 2004.
 S. Spear, “Learning to Lead at Toyota,” Harvard Business Review, Vol. 82, No. 5, 2004, pp. 78-86.
 See M.L. Emiliani, “Improving Management Education,” Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 14, No. 4, 2006, pp. 363-384 and
M.L. Emiliani, “Is Management Education Beneficial to Society?,” Management Decision, Vol. 42, No. 3/4, 2004, pp. 481-498.