Memo to ‘Top Management’ – Subject: Engine Technology

I’ve just been searching for a post that is hugely relevant to a recent conversation, and have found that it was an old piece that didn’t get published onto this blog…so here it is:

Jet engine“Management thinking affects business performance just as an engine affects the performance of an aircraft. Internal combustion and jet propulsion are two technologies for converting fuel into power to drive an aircraft.

New recipes for internal combustion can improve the performance of a propeller-driven airplane, but jet propulsion technology raises total performance to levels that internal combustion cannot achieve. So it is with management thinking.

Competitive businesses require jet (even rocket!) management principles. Unfortunately, internal combustion principles still power almost all management thinking.” (H. Thomas Johnson)

And so Johnson nicely compares and contrasts the decades old ‘command and control’ management system with a new ‘systems thinking’ way.

Let’s take incentives as an important example:

You report to a manager, who reports to a manager, who…etc. You have ‘negotiated’ some cascaded objectives and you will be rated and then rewarded on your ‘performance’ in meeting them. Sound familiar?

Here are the fundamental problems with this arrangement:

  • Obey and justifyYou will tell your manager what you think he/she wants to hear, and provide tailored evidence that supports this, whilst suppressing that which does not;

  • If you are ‘brave’ and tell your manager something that they might not like, you will do so very very carefully, like ‘walking on eggshells’…and, in so doing, likely de-power (i.e. remove the necessary clout from) the message;

  • You realise that it’s virtually suicidal to ‘go above them’ and tell your manager’s manager the ‘brave’ thing that they should hear…because you fear (with good reason) that this will most likely ‘come back to bite you’ at your judgement time (when the carrots are being handed out);

  • You are locked into a hierarchy that is reliant on a game of ‘Chinese whispers’ up the chain of command, with each whisperer finessing (or blocking) the message to assist in the rating of their own individual performance;

  • Each layer of management is shielded (by their own mechanism) from hearing the raw truth and, as such, they engineer that they ‘hear what they like, and like what they hear’.

…and therefore this system, whilst fully functioning, is perpetually impotent! It has disabled itself from finding out what it really needs to know.

“Hierarchies don’t like bad news…. bad news does not travel easily up organisations” (John Seddon)

If you’ve been in such a system and HAVE broken one of the rules above through your passion to make a real difference for the good of the organisation you work for (or perhaps worked!), then you’ve probably got some scars to show for it.

If you’ve always played it safe, then this is probably because you’ve seen what happens to the others!

The ‘Bottom line’ for ‘Top Management’:

If you want to transform your organisation, change ‘engine technology’! Tinkering with your existing one is simply not going to work.

  • Managers should not be rating the performance of individuals. Rather, they should understand what the system is preventing the individual from achieving…and then work with them to change that system to release their untapped potential;

  • Managers should not be incentivising individuals to comply. Rather, they should be sharing the success of the organisation with them. (These are very different things!)

Neither of these fundamental changes is in the gift of ‘middle management’ – they belong to those that determine the management system.

… and so, if (and this is a big ‘if’) ‘top management’ want to know the raw truth (‘warts and all’) they must constantly remove, and guard against, system conditions (e.g. incentives, performance ratings) that would prevent the truth from easily and quickly becoming lucid and transparent.

Afterthought, to counter a likely retort from ‘Top management’:

I have often (professionally) provided well intended feedback to ‘management’ as to what’s actually ‘happening out there’, particularly when I believe that they may not be aware of this. Many an Executive has derived great worth from this feedback (and thanked me accordingly).

This isn’t saying that I’m always right, or that I know everything. Obviously I’m not, and I don’t. But I do know what I see and hear.

However, there has been a subset of deeply command-and-control executives that confidently respond with “no Steve, you are wrong – that’s not the case at all. My people tell me exactly what’s happening…and there’s no problem here”.

I find this interesting (sometimes amusing, but mostly disappointing).

A manager can never be sure that people are being totally open and honest with them…but they can constantly look for, and understand, what mechanisms and practices would put this desired feedback in doubt or at risk….and then tirelessly work to remove these system conditions, for the good of all.

Footnote: I wrote this post before I wrote ‘Your Money or your Life!’…which considers the question as to whether ‘Top management’ in large corporates CAN change.

Correction, Clarification and Continual Learning

model-t-chassisI wrote a post some months back (July 2016) titled ‘The River Rouge – A divergent legacy’. If you haven’t read it, then it is necessary context for this post.

I received an interesting comment at the end of the post (from a contributor called Andrew) as follows:

You’re perpetuating an inaccurate myth about the Model T and production at Highland Park. The Model T was produced with tremendous variation – far more than a modern car. There were at any given time at least six different body styles of Model T, representing a lot more complexity than a simple color change.

As to color, the Model T was available in several colors – but not black – in its early days when the production rates were low. Black was introduced, not to minimize variation, but because black paint dried quicker and enabled faster, higher production rates. By 1926, paint science matured to the point that six additional colors were introduced to go along with black (and better compete with Chevrolet).”

I replied to Andrew’s comment and promised that I would add an addendum1…and then, as is usual, life carried on and time flew by. It is now, in this quieter Christmas/ New Year period that I realise that I have a hole to plug.

So here goes…


My original post, whilst (in my view) highly positive of what Henry Ford achieved, used the enduring “you can have any colour you like, as long as its black” line. I used this as the strap line to observe that “[Ford’s] manufacturing process was not designed to handle variety”, as explained in separate books by H. Thomas Johnson and Mike Rother.

My post then went on to contrast two very different approaches to handling the variety conundrum.

Andrew’s comment pointed out that the Model T was available:

  • in more than one colour; and
  • with different body styles.

He went on to suggest that “The Model T was produced with tremendous variety – far more than a modern car”.

coloursColours: Yes, I can see a number of sources that refer to different colours. However, I would suggest splitting the colour story into three parts (each of which Andrew’s comment eludes to):

The early years (1908 – 1914): From cross-checking a number of Ford related websites, it would appear that the Model T was available in a small variety of colours during its early low-level production years (grey, green, blue and red).

The volume years (1914 – 1926): This period corresponds to breakthrough improvements in producing at scale (and reducing the price)….and the only colour available was black.

In his 1922 ‘My Life and Works’ autobiography Ford refers to his salesmen wanting to cater for their customers’ every whim, rather than explaining that the product already satisfies their requirements…and it was this exchange that caused his “so long as its black” idiom:

“Therefore in 1909 I announced one morning, without any previous warning, that in the future we were going to build only one model, that the model was going to be “Model T”, and that the chassis would be exactly the same for all cars, and I remarked: “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”

Reference is made across a number of sources that black paint was used because its fast-drying properties aided speedy production. Other reasons suggested are the cheap cost of black paint, its durability and ease of reapplication (e.g. when repairing).

The end (1926 – 27): Colour choices were reintroduced…but this can be seen as an attempt to prop sales up and fight off the inevitable death of the Model T:

“Alfred Sloan [General Motors] began to offer inexpensive Chevrolets with amenities that the Model T lacked…..the market began to shift…styling and excitement suddenly counted to the customer.

 But Henry Ford refused even to consider replacing his beloved Model T…only one person persisted in warning him of the impending crisis: his son, Edsel…it was the first of many arguments that Edsel would lose.

 The Chevrolet continued to take sales from the dour Model T. By 1926, T sales had plummeted, and the realities of the market place finally convinced Henry that the end was at hand. On May 25th 1927, Ford abruptly announced the end of production for the Model T.” (Forbes Greatest Business Stories of All Time)

Body styles: Andrew’s comment usefully provides a link to an image showing a number of different Model T body styles, though I note that the title refers to 1911 which sits within the ‘early years’ pre-mass production period.

Breaking the body styles comment into a few parts:

The chassis: The Model T Ford was made up of the chassis (see title picture of this post) and then a body connected on to it.

From what I have read (including Ford’s words), the key point about the Model T Ford was that the chassis ‘moving down the line’ were all the same. Sure, they would differ over time as the design was (regularly) improved, but not ‘in the line’.

I find the picture below quite interesting – it shows2 a long line of Model T chassis waiting for a body (of differing styles) to be lowered on to it from a side process. Note the overhead rail coming in from the right.


Factory Bodies: Yes, I can see that different bodies were available – as can be made out from examining the above picture – but there was a limited range of standard designs (e.g. the Tourer, Roadster, Coupe and Sedan3).

You might ask “but what about all those other body styles out there?”

Aftermarket ‘engineering’: You can come across all sorts of weird and wacky looking vehicles all around the world that have been built on a Model T chassis. This is unsurprising given the sheer volume (and market share) of Model T’s that were out there.

A fair bit of ‘reconfiguring’ occurred, with owners hacking the car apart and customising it for their own needs. Many specialist aftermarket companies sprang up to perform conversions, even maturing to selling prefabricated kits for specific purposes, such as tractors. If you want a laugh at the sorts of conversions carried out then have a look at some of the images here (including a tank, a camper van…and a church!).

So, yes, I do need to correct my previous post’s implication that you could only ever buy a black Model T, and that one Model T was exactly the same as any other.

There was some variety, but does that mean Henry Ford had built a manufacturing process specifically aimed at handling this? And so I move on to….


clarificationGetting back to the point within my original ‘River Rouge’ post – that of handling variety in the line:

Andrew’s comment of The Model T was produced with tremendous variety…” might imply that Ford had indeed solved the variety riddle. I don’t think that this is the case and I’ll use a couple of passages from Ford’s own 1926 ‘Today and Tomorrow’ book to illuminate why I believe this:

“Whenever one can line up machinery for the making of exactly one thing and study everything to the end of making only that thing, then the savings which come about are startling.” (Chapter 5)

“The strongest objection to large numbers of styles and designs is that they are incompatible with economical production by any one concern. But when concerns specialize, each on its own design, economy and variety are both attainable. And both are necessary…

…we believe that no factory is large enough to make two kinds of products. Our organisation is not large enough to make two kinds of motor cars under the same roof.” (Chapter 7)

An underlying philosophy of Ford’s tremendous production success was a standard product (i.e. the opposite of variety)…which nearly became his undoing and set his organisation onto a path of catch-up with General Motors from the late 1920s onwards.

…none of this takes away from what Ford achieved and what then happened in American manufacturing and, in contrast, across the world in Japan. To summarise:

  • Henry Ford made amazing advances in respect of manufacturing, but the Model T’s homogeneity became its Achilles heel (a fact that he eventually conceded to his son Edsel and to his competitors);
  • In general, American manufacturing from the 1950s onwards went in the direction of scale and ‘unlearned’ much of what Ford had shown them; whilst
  • Toyota (learning from Ford) carried on in the direction of flow and worked out methods of handling variety in the line…thus achieving great things.

It’s worth reflecting that Taiichi Ohno credits Henry Ford with Toyota’s foundations:

“Taiichi Ohno…always spoke glowingly of Ford’s achievements…In 1982, Philip Caldwell, then head of Ford Motor Company, visited Japan. When Caldwell asked Eiji Toyoda, head of Toyota Motors, where Toyota had learned the production methods they employed so successfully in the 1970’s, Toyoda replied, ‘there’s no secret to how we learned to do what we do, Mr Caldwell. We learned it at the Rouge.’” (Johnson, quoting from David Halberstam’s ‘The Reckoning’)

Continual Learning

continual-learning-treeAndrew’s comment on my original post provided me with the impetus to learn some more.

  • I entered into a useful dialogue with Tom Johnson and Mike Rother;
  • I bought and read Ford’s book ‘Today and Tomorrow’;
  • I read around (and cross-checked) a fair bit of internet content; and
  • …I pondered what all of that lot meant.

I reflect on a wonderful Ackoff quote:

Although being taught is an obstruction to learning, teaching is a marvellous way to learn!”

i.e. it is in the act of attempting to explain something to others (e.g. via a post) that we can truly learn.

(I believe that) I now know more…but I’m even more certain that there’s much more to learn. A never-ending journey 🙂


1. Writing an Addendum: I am mindful that a number of you may have read my original post but not seen Andrew’s comment or my reply. So, rather than allowing this to remain somewhat hidden, I thought it only right (and respectful of Andrew’s fair and useful comment) to elevate my response* to a further post.

(* I am not a fan of the ‘gutter press’ splashing scandalous statements across their front pages, only to publish a unapologetic, one-line ‘retraction’ in tiny text somewhere buried on page 13)

2. Using photos: I am mindful that Ford’s production processes changed all the time and I have been warned to be careful when using a black and white picture of Model T production methods – such a picture shows how it worked at a point in time…and could easily have changed radically very soon afterwards!

3. Body Styles information taken from It shows that each of the main body styles evolved over time e.g. the Touring car went from 2 doors from 1909, to 3 doors from 1912 and then 4 doors from 1926.

…and I just have to add a picture of (what I understand to be) a Model T chassis with a body style of a house – definitely ‘after market’:


The River Rouge – a divergent legacy

ford-model-t-1925-6I expect that you’ve heard of the industrialist Henry Ford (1863 – 1947), but what about his massive ‘River Rouge’ car plant?

If you had gone for a ‘factory visit’ in the late 1920s, what would you have noticed?

The Model T Production line1

Ford wanted to provide a car that the masses could afford to buy – to ‘democratise the automobile’. Enter the Ford Model T – a car designed to be easy to drive and easy to repair, with standard interchangeable parts.

…but it wasn’t just about the car’s design. It was about the design of how the car was made.

In 1906, Ford’s engineers did something different – they experimented with the physical layout of their manufacturing system. They arranged their manufacturing tools in the sequence of processing steps rather than the normal practise of by machine type. This seems ridiculously obvious now (hindsight is a wonderful thing!), and the result was considerably higher productivity. This innovation created a flow in the order of the work but, at this stage of the Ford story, each work step was still done on stationary tables and stands.

In 1913, they took the next breakthrough step: they experimented with the moving assembly line for a small section of the process and, after some fine-tuning, this increased productivity fourfold…..and so the engineers got to work spreading this method throughout the manufacturing value stream.

Ford was constantly reducing his costs, not by ‘cost-cutting’ but through a fanatical focus on creating flow. This was achieved by a combination of continuous (incremental) and breakthrough (step change) improvements…which enabled Ford to pass on these savings by consistently lowering the price of the Model T…which increased demand…which outstripped supply…which meant that ever further production innovations were required to keep up!

Highland ParkA great deal of the experimentation explained above was carried out at the purpose built Highland Park factory. It was six-stories high, with a railroad track running down a central atrium (pictured) and cranes lifting materials from the rail carriages up to balconies that opened to the appropriate floors on either side.

The basic pieces of the Model T started at the top floor and, through the use of chutes, conveyors and tubes between floors and the force of gravity, they made their way down through the various sub-assembly processes until they reached the ground floor final assembly conveyor….and then the completed car could ‘drive off the line’.

River RougeWhilst Highland Park was an amazing feat of engineering, it had its limitations – such as the central crane-way that was probably a huge bottleneck! Henry Ford went for one more innovative jump – he created an enormous horizontal factory complex called the River Rouge2. The site started with raw iron ore and materials and finished with completed automobiles. It had its own ship docks, power generation plant, blast furnaces and rolling mills – all arranged to achieve flow (I’ve added the basic flow over an aerial picture).

“The River Rouge Plant in 1925 produced about one vehicle per minute in a total lead time of about three days and nine hours from steel making to finished vehicle.” (Source: Henry Ford’s book ‘Today and Tomorrow’)

“…as long as it’s black”

You are probably familiar with the famous Henry Ford quote that ‘you can have any colour you like, as long as it’s black’. Today this sounds quaint, even humorous but there’s a seriously important point within: the manufacturing process was not designed to handle variety.

This hadn’t been a problem – people just wanted to be able to afford a car! – but rising standards of living and the birth of modern marketing gave rise to the ‘sophisticated consumer’. The new problem became offering ever wider variety (e.g. different colours, engine choices, trim levels, add-ons….) whilst retaining low-prices (and therefore mass-production costs).

And so to the crux of this post: Lots of organisations from all around America and the world went to the River Rouge to learn…but what did they see…and, therefore, what did they go away to do?

American Manufacturers post World War II.

So American organisations saw scale at the River Rouge.

Unfortunately, achieving the product variety now demanded by customers meant regularly stopping the production line to change tooling to be able to produce the different variants. Delivering variety was seriously hindering speed.

What to do? Here’s what they came up with:

  • Let’s interrupt the flow and decouple the stages within the production line, allowing the different processes to operate independently, and create buffer stocks between each process;
  • Let’s build each process to the largest scale feasible, and then run large batches per product variant through at the fastest rate possible and thus keep the number of changeovers required down to a minimum.
  • Let’s build warehouses to store all the resultant inventory (Work-in-process and finished goods)

This fundamentally changed production from workers producing for the next process step to workers merely producing for inventory. It became a case of ‘make lots and inspect later’. It was virtually a crime to stop the line3 – a disaster for quality!

Of course, once the main process steps were decoupled, their co-location didn’t matter so much. So rather than having a number of end-to-end manufacturing sites across America, the ‘logic’ could extend to…

  • Let’s centralise process steps into ‘centres of excellence’ so that we can increase scale even further! We might end up with, say, a massive steel works in one city, huge sub-assemblies in another city and a mega final assembly yet somewhere else.

…and the above ‘solution’ to variety introduced massive wastes in the forms of transportation across sites; inventory and its motion as it is constantly transferred in and out of the warehouse; over-production and obsolescence; defects through poor quality and rework…and on and on and on.

You could conclude that they ‘unlearned’ (even destroyed) what Henry Ford had achieved before variety had been introduced.

The above led American manufacturers to the hell of:

  • centralised planning, culminating in mega algorithms calculated by Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP ii) computer applications, producing theoretical answers far from reality; and
  • ‘management by results’ using managerial accounting data (unit costs, rates of return, targets, budgets,…) to command and control the work.

This approach, even though it was hugely wasteful, proved profitable until the 1970s…until domestic demand became satiated and globalisation opened up the market to other manufacturers. Things suddenly became rather competitive….

Over in Japan

The Japanese, and Toyota in particular, saw flow at the River Rouge.

Taiichi Ohno (Toyota) realised that flow was the important bit: “ [they] observed that Ford’s plant conserved resources, by having processes linked in a continuous chain and by running slowly enough so that people could stop and fix errors when they occurred.”  (Johnson4)

Japan, unlike America, did not have the luxury of abundant resources after World War II. They couldn’t afford to create huge factories or tie up money in inventory…so they had to find a different way – to do a lot with a little.

Taiichi Ohno came to the conclusion that variety and flow had to go together i.e. “a system where material and work flowed continuously, one order at a time” (Johnson).

This created some clear challenges to work on:

  • rather than simply accepting that machine changeovers took time, Ohno set his workers the challenge of continuously reducing set up and change-over times; and
  • rather than running high-volume batches per variant, Ohno empowered each worker to design and control the steps they performed so that they could perform different steps on each unit that passed through them

In short, he set his people a huge visionary challenge, of working together as a system to think about the incremental, and sometimes giant, steps they could take to handle variety ‘in the line’.

Rather than centralised planning with standardised work dictated to them, the workers were empowered, and encouraged, to think for themselves, to deal with what was in front of them, to experiment and to innovate….and to share what they had learned.

And, wow, they came up with some fabulous techniques such as ‘Single-Minute Exchange of Dies’ (SMED), ‘pull’ using kanban, product supermarkets, ‘stop the line’ using andon cords, visual management, machine ‘right sizing’…and on and on.

I could write about each of these…but I’m not going to (at least not now). The point is not the brilliant innovations themselves. It is the clear and permanent challenges that were set and the constant progress towards them.

You may copy ALL of Toyota’s techniques but they (and other like-minded organisations) will still leave you far behind. Why? Because, whilst you are attempting to copy them they are racing yet further ahead. Indeed, what you copy (even if you ‘get’ the why) may be an out-dated technique before you go live! (This is to compare a static vs. dynamic environment)

What about service?

The Western (?) ‘solution’ for service organisations has, sadly, been virtually the same – scale: to standardise, specialise, centralise and ‘crank up the volume’.

Yet the challenge of handling customer variety is so much bigger: variety for service organisations is virtually infinite – it’s different per customer and, even for a given customer, it differs as their circumstances change.

So should we just pick up the ‘Toyota tool kit’ and get implementing? No. The techniques to meet the challenge will differ. Service is NOT manufacturing.

But can we learn from Toyota? Most certainly – but this must be at the deepest ‘beliefs and behaviours’ level.

The core message from the above is that service organisations should design their system such that the front line are allowed, and enabled, to absorb variety in customer demand.

If you run a service organisation and you have set up:

  • a front office ‘order taking’ function to categorise demand (which can only be based on the limited information available to them), and break it down into standard ‘work objects’ from an allowable catalogue of variants;
  • a ‘workforce management’ function to: prioritise and allocate (i.e. push) these work objects into ‘work queues’, usually by temporal batches (e.g. by day/ shift or weekly);
  • multiple specialised back office silos to churn through their allocated work, ‘motivated’ by activity targets (and incentives) regarding volumes of work performed; and, as a result
  • a complete confusion as to who is taking responsibility for resolving the customer need

…then you have seen scale, through commanding and controlling the work, as the ‘solution’.

If, however, you are on a journey towards:

  • equipping the people at the point of contact with the necessary expertise and freedom to respond to what most customers will predictably want (i.e. the bulk of demand); and
  • where more unusual demand hits the system, allowing and enabling these same ‘front of service’ people to ‘pull’ expertise to assist, yet retaining ownership of the service provision (thereby speeding up their rate of learning and widening their skills and knowledge)

…then you are on a similar track to Ohno: Pursuing flow for each unique customer demand, through revealing and harvesting the passion and pride within your workers.


1. Sources: Much of the above comes from early chapters within three books:

  • ‘Relevance Regained’ by H. Thomas Johnson
  • ‘Profit Beyond Measure’ by H. Thomas Johnson
  • ‘Toyota Kata’ by Mike Rother

Other details (including pictures) come from searching around the ‘interweb’ thing.

…and of course the service ending is inspired by the work of John Seddon.

2. Historical point of detail: “The River Rouge was built to produce Model T Fords for decades to come, [but] by the time it was capable of full production later in the [1920s], a factory a tenth its size could have handled the demand for Model Ts.” (Wiley)

i.e. Henry Ford had built this huge production machine but his product had gone out of fashion because its competitor, General Motors, was providing the variety that customers now wanted, albeit using scale to do so. Ford was now in a dash to recover.

3. ‘Stop the line’ crime: Workers knew that managers wanted them to make as many as possible, with no ‘down time’. I understand that this is where the phrase to ‘throw a spanner in the works’ comes from…which refers to a disgruntled worker ‘accidentally’ dropping a tool into the assembly line mechanism so that the line stopped and they all got a break whilst the cause was found and rectified.

4. A fresh giant: Johnson is a giant for me, and I’ve been meaning to add his ‘giant bio’ to this blog for ages now…I have finally done so 🙂

Oxygen isn’t what life is about

LungsI often hear people talking about the need for profit and that my thinking must address this fact. I respond that it does, but not as they might think. This post tries to explain.

There are two types of ‘for profit’ organisational thinking, both of which consider that profit is necessary…and there the similarity ends.

Type 1: Considers profit as the overall goal and purpose of the organisation ‘at any cost’;

Type 2: Perceives profit as necessary for the organisation’s survival, but not its reason for existence. Profit to such an organisation “will be seen as breathing is to a human organism, but not what life is about.” (H. Thomas Johnson)

The difference in management systems and outcomes for these two types of thinking will be profound.

Below are a number of convergent viewpoints from key thinkers backing a ‘Type 2’ view on profit:


Aaron Dignan, in his talk on the operating model that is eating the world, explains the over-riding importance of purpose. He uses the examples of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Tesla (and many other highly successful organisations operating beyond traditional 20th century western management thinking) to explain that:

  • It’s not about the money, it’s about the mission [purpose]. The idea of putting values above revenues is really important and defines how powerful that purpose can be!
    • Put another way, placing profit above your stated purpose means that it usurps this purpose.
  • The leaders of these organisations, such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, make this very clear to the market: “This is our mission, it’s long term, if you don’t like it, get out of our stock”.
    • This message is very useful for the company and potential investors – it provides transparency; allows the company to focus on what it is actually trying to do; and it allows prospective and existing investors to make clear investment decisions…it also provides them with a high degree of confidence in the organisation.
  •  Playing a long game is a really good sign that an organisation has its purpose screwed on tight. They’re not playing to the (financial reporting) quarter or to ‘the man in the street’, they are playing to the purpose…and that means that they might have to make long term bets and let things play out and then cash out over time.

Cause and effect: If you truly focus on purpose, the effect will be a highly successful organisation (and happy investors).


Sir Richard Branson has a very clear philosophy on priorities : “put your staff first, customers second and your shareholders third”. This is the complete opposite of the traditional view, but there is a simple yet profound logic within which Branson says “should go without saying and it’s surprising that it still doesn’t in many organisations”.

Put simply, if the people working at your company are 100% proud of the job they are doing, are given the tools to do a good job, are treated well and (consequently) are proud of the brand then they are going to truly look after the customer.

Cause and effect: The shareholders do well because the customers do better because your staff are (truly) happy.

A caveat: Don’t think that you can hoodwink your staff (i.e. with words, ‘canned fun’ and/or bribes) into thinking that they are ‘first’ if this is not so…they will see right through such a facade.

A reality check: If your people aren’t proud of what they do/ where they work then you have a problem with your priorities.


Mike Rother, in his book ‘Toyota Kata’, sets out an interesting historical perspective of how we arrived at the traditional 20th century (Western) management approach. In it he quotes Alfred P Sloan (President and then Chief Exec. and Chairman of General Motors between 1923 – 56) as saying:

“We are not in the business of making cars, we are in the business of making money.” *

You might come back at me and say, “well he’s right isn’t he? We might ‘say’ our purpose is ‘xyz’ but it’s actually about the money.”

To this, I would say that we need to recognise that customer, employee and investor make up necessary components of an organisation’s system and, going back to harmony or cacophony, we should understand that we can’t put one component (e.g. investors) above the others and expect it to be good for the system. In fact, to do so will cause unknown and unknowable harm to the system.

We need to understand the system and its purpose and then act in such a way as to derive a win/win/win scenario….which goes back to Dignan’s point about purpose and Branson’s point about priorities.

Cause and effect: Optimising the system will be good for all of its components over the long term.

A caveat: If you ‘say’ it’s all about purpose but underneath it all it isn’t then don’t be surprised at your inability to move towards it. This is a classic case of POSIWID.

* Note: General Motors made a 2007 financial loss of US$38.7 Billion and, after running out of cash soon after, entered ‘Chapter 11’ bankruptcy in 2009. After selling off or discontinuing many brands, it emerged as a new company with new management and financial bailouts from both the US and Europe, with a net cost to US taxpayers (to date) of US$12 Billion.


Thomas (Tom) Johnson, Professor of Accounting and author of the book ‘Profit beyond measure’ wrote in an article on the excellent ‘Lean Edge’ site that “financial results such as revenues, costs and profits are by-products of well-run human-focused processes”.

He goes on to make the following comparison:

“…the Toyota people in Japan who founded and grew the company down to the 1990s saw the company as a disciplined organization of ’employee/suppliers’ whose purpose is to serve ‘customers’ in a way that earns sufficient profit to ensure the long-term survival of the organization. 

…those of us from the West, on the other hand, for the past 30 to 40 years have viewed the purpose of business as making profit, by any means considered legal.

…the contrasting view held by Toyota people who founded and built that company from the 1950s to 2000 considers that a business exists to provide opportunity for humans to exercise their inherent creativity in gainful employment serving needs of other humans. The people who held that view saw the purpose of the business to be continuous improvement of a system designed to enable humans to serve other humans gainfully and sustainably”

It’s interesting to note that there are plenty of organisations around the world (Dignan refers to some in his video above) that have understood the ’cause and effect’ of Toyota’s view i.e. that everyone (including investors) does well if an organisation sets out and truly pursues its purpose, with its long term success being the outcome.


And finally, if we go back to Simon Sinek’s ‘start with why’, he makes some things very clear:

‘Why’ is not about profit…that’s just an outcome:

“By why, I don’t mean to make a profit, that’s a result. By why, I mean what’s your purpose, your cause, your belief? Why does your organisation exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning and why should anyone care?”

You can’t just state your ‘why’ (your purpose). It actually has to be what you believe! If your actions are about profit over your stated purpose then this evidence will be seen, taken on board and acted upon accordingly:

“…what you do serves as the proof of what you believe.”

People ultimately follow leaders for themselves. If the actions of those leaders do not align with the beliefs of the workers then don’t expect them to follow:

“We follow those who lead, not because we have to but because we want to. We follow, not for them but for ourselves.”

Finally, there’s a really important point implied but not explicitly stated by Simon Sinek: The leaders of an organisation need to provide the environment, through an appropriate management system, that enables the purpose and does not frustrate it.


In summary:

  • You can state a purpose….but you’ve got to actually live it to move towards it;
  • An organisation’s purpose should NOT be ‘profit’, even though this outcome is necessary for the system and those that finance it;
  • If you think it’s the other way around i.e. that you need to state a purpose so as to chase profit, then you are likely to fall a long way short of what you could achieve…and will put your long term survival at serious risk;
  • A focus on short term profits and results for the market will likely destroy unknown and unknowable value.

For those of you who think “what a load of hippy liberal rubbish, of course it’s all about the shareholder”, here’s a really nice quote to consider from Sam Walton (founder of Wal-Mart):

“There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”

…how would those shareholders feel if their investment became worthless?

Note: The above raises a ‘big hairy question’ – There are many corporate forms…but which ones help and which ones hinder an organisation’s ability to truly live its stated purpose? This is something that the world’s politicians and financial markets are currently grappling with. Here’s an interesting ‘’ article about this.

A Gulf in Thinking

keep-calm-and-pull-andon-cord-4The Toyota Production System famously uses the andon system: the provision of a cord hanging from the ceiling* at every worker’s station that, once pulled, indicates that the worker has identified a problem and that no more work should pass through their section of the line until this problem has been resolved.

(* it doesn’t have to be a cord, it can be a button or other such device.)

The problem could be anything. If the worker isn’t happy about something, then the cord gets pulled!

Once pulled, a light and/or buzzer will be triggered. The worker’s supervisor will come to their station and, together, they will consider the problem and how to resolve it. Depending on the problem, it may be resolved fully or temporarily whilst a better countermeasure is worked on in parallel (i.e. the temporary doesn’t become permanent!)

This ‘stop the line’ mentality means that:

  • No more units of work can go through the line whilst the problem exists, meaning that the customers are protected from receiving a defective product/ service;
  • The problem is solved as soon as it occurs. It’s not a case of “yeah, we’ve known about it for ages but no one’s done anything about it (yet!)…”; and
  • The process is continually improving naturally, as it operates. I love this bit – the workers are the source of this improvement rather than specialist improvement teams being sent in to monitor them and their work.

And to be clear, this andon system is equally applicable to a service organisation and its processes as it is to a manufacturing line. If you are performing a service but experience a problem…stop…don’t keep processing yet more units through the problem…work to remove the problem. This ‘stop’ doesn’t mean stop answering customer demand (such as picking up the phone) but it does mean stop doing things that you know aren’t going to be good for that, and future, units of work.

Now, obviously, a process performer is constrained by the system and can’t resolve problems by themselves. The andon system is far more than a cord! It is workers, supervisors and managers all working together with the same ‘stop the line and fix it’ mentality.

H. Thomas Johnson, in his highly regarded book ‘Profit beyond measure’ explains a conversation he had with a training executive from one of the American ‘Big Three’ auto companies who were trying to emulate Toyota by copying their tools and techniques.

This is what the executive said when Johnson asked how her company presents the andon system in employee training:

“Employees are told that the andon system is very important to achieving high quality, but they are told that they must use the cord responsibly. That means don’t pull it unless it is absolutely necessary, because pulling the cord and stopping the line is very costly.”

…and so this executive exposes the absolute gulf in thinking between her organisation and (System Thinking organisations such as) Toyota!

THE point of the andon system is that the employee is able to stop their work at will.

How the hell does the worker know if it’s ‘absolutely necessary’? What does that even mean? Toyota want the worker to ‘pull the cord’ even if they are simply uncertain about something…so that this uncertainty can be identified, understood and removed – it’s not the workers fault if they aren’t sure about something! It’s the system.

They also want the worker to pull the cord if they can’t keep pace with the line. Again, this is the worker telling them something that they need to know…not an opportunity to blame the worker as a ‘slacker’. They can then look at why the worker can’t keep pace. This could be for a myriad of reasons.

You can see why a Toyota line will continue to get better and better every day and their workers more expert, feeling more respected and as a result more engaged in wanting to improve.

You can also see that their American competitor is playing a ‘command and control’ mind game on their workers. The worker is thinking “should I pull the cord? Not sure…best not to since I don’t want to be blamed for the cost.”

Paradoxically, it will be Toyota’s costs that will be going down!!!

Now, Toyota does monitor the number of times the cords are pulled in a given period (i.e. they do care about who is pulling it and how often) but not as you might think…

…they are most concerned when the number of ‘stop the line’ signals goes down…because this indicates that they are not improving as much as they were…and this concerns them: more andon cord pulls please!!!

Oh, and one last (yet important) thing: targets, and contingent rewards , are the sworn enemy of stopping the line to resolve a problem!