Brandt On Leadership -- Hooked On Lean?

Jan. 27, 2005
It's more than just an improvement process, it's a fashion accessory. Are you going to take the bait?

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Bilgewater Consulting firm, our sales have lagged those of our competitors. We've been puzzled by this; indeed, independent evaluations affirm that our services are every bit as ill-focused and self-serving as those of our peers. Our phony seven-step "improvement processes," designed to make management common sense look like revelations from God (or Peter Drucker, whichever the client prefers), are second to none. And our facility with jargon has never been better; we can task our human assets with creative market space objectives as well as anyone.

So why aren't sales better?

According to our research group, the problem lies not in our deliverables but in our marketing. In simplest terms, we just aren't lean enough.

Calm down, people, calm down. Please. Nobody's getting fired today (except at our clients, of course). I don't mean "lean" in its reductive, Toyota Production , Get-the-Waste-Out-of-Your-Processes sense. I mean "lean" in its purest, most useful sense, at least for us: As a marketing tool to get clients to buy more consulting services.

As you may have noticed, most every manufacturing seminar, workshop, conference, magazine, white paper, research study or book advertised for sale in the last year has had the word "lean" in its title. Why? Because this powerful, four-letter word can be combined randomly with any other buzzword -- e.g., growth, innovation, global -- to create smart-sounding programs such as "Lean Innovation for Global Growth" or "Innovation, Growth and Lean in a Global Marketplace." No one knows what these titles could possibly mean, not even the people who write them. And yet clients flock to them anyway, waving checkbooks and AMEX cards as they come.

Many of you must have wondered -- as have I -- how this one word became such a powerful driver of consulting revenue. No one really knows, although our research department speculates that somewhere in early 2004 the cultural perception of lean mutated from an actual improvement process into a fashion accessory for senior executives. Now, it seems, every self-respecting manager has decided that he'd rather be seen naked in public than without a lean plan or credential of some kind.

In short, lean is the new Atkins Diet for manufacturers.

Bilgewater, then, must become lean to survive. Which is why, starting today, every project we bid on, every program we offer, every department and managerial title we maintain, will have "lean" smack dab in the middle of it. Lean Health Care, Lean Compliance, Lean Audits, Lean Change Management -- if it's Lean, by God, Bilgewater is going to offer it. I myself have changed my business cards from CEO to CLO (Chief Lean Officer). I feel -- and our clients seem to agree -- smarter already.

I realize that there are some of you out there who might feel that this is merely a cynical tactic to drive revenue, rather than to help our clients. What about the muri, you ask, what about the mura, the muda? Wouldn't real lean programs help our clients improve their workflows and profits? The answer, of course, would be "yes" -- if we had clients willing to implement those programs. But you and I both know that most executives love change -- they love it! -- only so long it doesn't disturb the status quo. What they really love (but can't admit) is being able to act like they're on top of the latest management trends -- think MBWA, think TQM, think Reengineering -- without having to do anything new or different.

That's why I'm proud to announce our new "Global Lean Transformation Center for Excellence in Innovation and Growth." With this program, we will continue Bilgewater's proud (and profitable) tradition of helping clients to feel as if they've achieved meaningful transformation without the pain and bother of actual change.

I think it's a winner, don't you?

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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