Apple: A Successful, “Anti-Lean” Company

A company that embodies the lean principle of respect for people would likely have teams of empowered employees, strong communication among teams and individuals, ongoing recognition of employee and team achievements, and managers at all levels who are not autocratic but encourage independent thinking.

The antithesis of this – call it an “anti-lean” company – might have functional silos, obsessive secrecy and limited internal communication, little praise and frequent criticism of employees, and a dictatorial, micro-managing CEO who treats employees badly.

Welcome to Apple.

cover story in the April issue of Wired magazine profiles Apple and its well-known CEO Steve Jobs, with the headline “How Apple Got Everything Right By Doing Everything Wrong.”

What the headline means is that Apple ignores conventional Silicon Valley wisdom encouraging open platforms, transparency in communication and operations, “management by walking around,” and treating employees like gods.

According to the article, written by Leander Kahney,

Jobs is a notorious micromanager. No product escapes Cupertino without meeting Jobs’ exacting standards, which are said to cover such esoteric details as the number of screws on the bottom of a laptop and the curve of a monitor’s corners…

Whereas as the rest of the tech industry may motivate employees with carrots, Jobs is known as an inveterate stick man. Even the most favored employee could find themselves on the receiving end of a tirade. Insiders have a term for it: the “hero-shithead roller coaster.” Says Edward Eigerman, a former Apple engineer, “More than anywhere else I’ve worked before or since, there’s a lot of concern about being fired...”

Apple employees often have no idea what their own company is up to. Workers’ electronic security badges are programmed to restrict access to various areas of the campus. (Signs warning NO TAILGATING are posted on doors to discourage the curious from sneaking into off-limit areas.) Software and hardware designers are housed in separate buildings and kept from seeing each other’s work, so neither gets a complete sense of the project. “We have cells, like a terrorist organization,” Jon Rubinstein, former head of Apple’s hardware and iPod divisions and now executive chair at Palm, told Business Week in 2000.

At times, Apple’s secrecy approaches paranoia. Talking to outsiders is forbidden; employees are warned against telling their families what they are working on.

By many measures, Apple today is an extremely successful company. How can an anti-lean company be so strong? And why do employees want to work there?

While Apple’s tactics may seem like Industrial Revolution relics, they’ve helped the company position itself ahead of its competitors and at the forefront of the tech industry. Sometimes, evil works…

Jobs’ employees remain devoted. That’s because his autocracy is balanced by his famous charisma – he can make the task of designing a power supply feel like a mission from God… And because Jobs’ approval is so hard to win, Apple staffers labor tirelessly to please him…

Apple’s successes in the years since Jobs’ return – iMac, iPod, iPhone – suggest an alternate vision to the worker-is-always-right school of management. In Cupertino, innovation doesn’t come from coddling employees and collecting whatever froth rises to the surface; it is the product of an intense, hard-fought process, where people’s feelings are irrelevant…

“Steve proves that it’s OK to be an asshole,” says Guy Kawasaki, Apple’s former chief evangelist. “I can’t relate to the way he does things, but it’s not his problem. It’s mine. He just has a different OS…”

No other company has proven as adept at giving customers what they want before they know they want it. Undoubtedly, this is due to Jobs’ unique creative vision. But it’s also a function of his management practices. By exerting unrelenting control over his employees, his image and even his customers, Jobs exerts unrelenting control over his products and how they’re used. And in a consumer-focused tech industry, the products are what matter.

Do you agree? Would Apple be more or less successful if it embraced a lean strategy? Is an anti-lean approach ever better? Post your comments below.


Ian Furst said...

I think anyone that's read Good to Great will know the answer. As long as Jobs stays in the role the business can thrive but once gone it's most likely to collapse. Think Chrysler of the 80's.

Anonymous said...

It looks like Steve Jobs is interested in more than sales numbers, he does have a keen interest (and therefore respect) for what his engineers are actually doing. He knows that not all engineers are equal. (That includes himself - nothing replaces talent). His message is clear: quality comes first, and by the way deadlines come first as well! He probably does not care much about being compliant with process X (muda). If a leader has a good vision, and he cares and knows about details of the products at the same time, then you have a good chief engineer. So, you have a good deal of Lean there. Now, has Apple been lucky so far that they have succeeded with ONE chief engineer? Probably! Is it scalable and sustainable? Probably not!

Steven Howard said...

Apple is definitely not a lean company, but it seems to understand the lean concept based on few fundamentals. Actually, it all depends on the customer and the way they deal with Apple products.

Anonymous said...

love the work you guys are doing on this project, can’t wait to play it
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Anonymous said...

That is one option, but I think they would need pretty much constant pruning if I leave them in their current spot. Most likely I'll transplant them, just can't decide whether to transplant them further back in the foundation bed or out to the backyard where they can climb a tree. But I appreciate your impassioned defense of the vines!!
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Anonymous said...

Agreed. When it’s left to the media to arbitrarily decide which issues deserve attention, it can often encourage conflict between competing “issues” that ultimately serves the status quo. A better approach, of course, would be solidarity between all parties, but that’s easier said than done!
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