Most academic types have the vision of sheep. They study and write about trends that others have pioneered, with their original thinking limited to coining new terms for popular tends. In fact, within the elite business schools contrarian thinking and true originality are quietly discouraged. The best way to get a job at Harvard, it would seem, is to write books and papers that support what Harvard professors think. The insignificance of manufacturing and the offshore outsourcing trend make for an excellent case in point. Once the trend was firmly established the torrent of academic studies validating the theory behind it has been overwhelming.
Two academics, however, are glaring, radical exceptions to this general rule. Tom Johnson and Doc Hall are a couple of guys who spend little time worrying about the current trends and current thinking. Hockey star Wayne Gretzky’s quote concerning the key to success being to skate to where the puck will be, rather than where it is now is often cited in business advice. Tom and Doc are guys who devote just about all of their considerable brain power to figuring out just where the puck will be in the future.
Most of the time those of us with average intellect have a hard time following their thinking. It would be easy to write them off as irrelevant theorists if it weren’t for the fact that they have a track record of being right on just about everything. You can pretty well count on the things you don’t understand now becoming clear to you in a couple of years, and becoming reality a few years after that. You write off their ideas at your own, considerable risk.
Tom has moved well beyond our basic understanding of lean, pioneered lean accounting, and has now moved beyond it too. While I couldn’t begin to understand (let alone explain) his thinking, it revolves around the idea that the organization is, at heart, a set of complex relationships between people. The company is presented with a never ending barrage of problems and opportunities. Its success in dealing with them depends largely on how quickly and effectively the people within the organization with the appropriate knowledge, insight, wisdom and creativity get together to address those problems and opportunities.Org structures get in the way because they are static – defining relationships more or less permanently, while the right people to address any situation is highly dynamic, changing with each problem or idea. Accounting gets in the way because it feebly seeks to replace interaction between the right people with numbers.
This is pretty heady stuff, and hard to put into practical terms for managers who have to get things done today. It would behoove all of us to keep trying to wrap out minds around it, though. It is a safe bet that, before long, someone will figure out how to bottle these theories, slap buzzwords on them and we will all be preaching and practicing them. By then, of course, Tom will have moved on to whatever comes next.
Doc runs something called The Compression Institute. I talked to Doc for a couple hours at a conference recently and he told someone he didn’t think I supported his compression theory because we talked about Indiana high school and college basketball the whole time. That isn’t it at all. The fact is that for me to talk to Doc about compression requires him to slow his brain down so much that he would probably fall asleep.
The explanation of compression I suggested to him was the plight of the Post Office. They can’t make money because they grossly under-utilize their capacity travelling to every home and business without much mail to deliver. When you look at the neighborhood, however, there are lots of people running around the same neighborhood with capacity to spare: Water, electricity and gas meter readers; school buses, garbage collectors, cable installers and patrolling policemen, for instance. For that matter, the people living in the neighborhood have time on their hands
Each of them, in one form or another, wants to become lean – using their time to add value and avoiding wasting it. But they have different measures and goals stemming from the fact that they define success in a manner limited to their own organizations. Compression theory asks the question, ‘what if you value stream mapped all of them holistically? If you could link up everyone and optimize the whole, collectively far less money would be spent, far less energy would be consumed, the neighborhood as a whole would come out way ahead. So how do we link up all of the value stream maps, regardless of which company, government agency, public utility and person is involved and make it happen? Some companies and agencies would grow and become bigger, while others might be eliminated.
When I cited that example of compression to Doc, he basically wrote back and said, ‘yeah, that is compression theory if you only use about 2% of your brain to think about it’. Like Tom and his relationship theories, you ignore Doc and Compression theory at your own considerable risk. Remember, Doc Hall is the guy who basically blew up APICS and its MRP focus and formed AME with its lean focus years before Jim Womack, et al even coined the term lean. Doc’s crystal ball has a record of outstanding clarity.
Pay close attention to these two guys. If you are like me, most of the time you will have no idea what they are talking about. But I have learned (usually the hard way) that sooner or later you will understand exactly what they were talking about, whether you want to or not. They operate at dizzying heights, giving them the ability to see with extraordinary clarity that which is well beyond the horizon for the rest of us.