Ross Robson Interview, Part I: The Obstacles to Lean Implementations

American manufacturers can compete successfully in the global marketplace with lean strategies, but first they have to overcome the obstacle of big egos.

            That’s the sense I get talking with Ross Robson, who is retiring as executive director of the Shingo Prize for Excellence in Manufacturing.

            Ross has always been a passionate advocate of lean manufacturing, and he has been with the Shingo Prize since its inception 19 years ago. A Ph.D., he is also on the faculty of the College of Business of Utah State University, where the Shingo Prize has its headquarters.

            His retirement was announced about a month ago. He will continue working with the Shingo Prize until next spring as director of its public sector prize, developing a partnership with the Department of Defense. He will also retire from the University in September of 2008.

            I recently spent some time on the phone with Ross. Because of his long involvement in lean issues – the Shingo Prize criteria closely parallel Toyota’s principles – I believe he is well-positioned to talk about the state of American manufacturing.

            “My sense is that probably 50 to 60 percent, and maybe as high as 75 percent, of manufacturing companies in North America today are focused on elements of lean manufacturing, lean enterprise,” he told me. “But I would tend to say that at best, five to no more than 10 percent are really doing well at lean. The opportunities remain huge in the U.S. and North America relative to the ‘true north’ implementation of lean enterprise.”

            When I asked him what the chief obstacles are to a broader adoption of true lean principles, Ross didn’t actually use the word ‘ego.’ But he did mention three obstacles, all of which relate to that concept.

            “One of the obstacles is simply new ownership,” he said. “In the world model, not the Toyota model, of leadership, new leaders feel a sense of obligation to come in and leave their mark, and demonstrate that they are in charge. And that model is one of the worst, and one of the biggest challenges to continuous improvement in a company or a business that exists in the marketplace today. It tends to be based on what David Mann in his book calls ‘person-centered leadership’ rather than process-centered leadership.”

            A second issue, Ross contends, is that “particularly in the U.S., we suffer from what I refer to as arrogance, which is the antithesis of good continuous improvement. In other words, we say to ourselves, ‘gee, we’re the richest, most powerful country in the world. Why do we need to, or have to, change?’” He contrasts that with attitudes in Mexico; “I have said for years that if you to to Mexico and say ‘have you thought about…?’ in three months, it’s done. In the U.S., if you say ‘have you thought about…?’ in six years they are still talking about it.”

            The third issue is “the notion that falls into the good old management discussion of power vs. influence. Senior leaders, once they get into a position of authority, don’t want to give up power,” he commented. That’s a problem when it comes to a lean strategy, which involves empowering workers.

            Outside of the Shingo Prize, Ross said his work with students at Utah State has been very rewarding, though he adds that “probably my greatest frustration has been the failure to get students to focus on manufacturing as their career.”

            Despite the ego obstacles and the difficulty finding qualified people, Ross remains optimistic about the future of American manufacturing. However, he also has some strong beliefs about the need for government action in the world marketplace, which I will describe in my next posting.



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