Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Taiichi Ohno: Lean Practitioners

By on April 21, 2015
Steve Jobs: Lean Practitioner

“If you want to hire great people and have them stay working for you, you have to let them make a lot of decisions and you have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy. The best ideas have to win.”
– Steve Jobs

This comment could have just as easily have been made by Henry Ford or Taiichi Ohno, a student of Ford and chief architect of the Toyota Production System, the precursor of Lean manufacturing systems now used worldwide in a wide variety of industries. Although Jobs probably wasn’t aware of it, the organizational structure he’s describing sounds very much like Toyota’s servant leadership model.

Based on what I’ve read there is no evidence that Steve Jobs was conversant with the tools of Lean manufacturing. That aside, there is ample evidence that he practiced Lean thinking. Throughout his career, his work consistently reflected these key characteristics of Lean thinking:

  • Impatience with the status quo
  • An intense drive to continually drive work processes toward perfection
  • An understanding of the power of simplicity and focus
  • An understanding of the importance of leaders directly engaging employees in energetic, give and take discussions about work processes
  • A recognition of the way in which the behavior of the top ranks of leadership filter down to impact the behavior of employees at all levels of the organization.

Jobs’ “impatience with the status quo” and “drive to move products toward perfection” is legendary. Clearly the development of the iPhone, iPod, iPad, as well as other Apple products, happened because Jobs and his team were determined to move past the ordinary to the extraordinary. When asked about not using focus groups to develop ideas for new products, Jobs made reference to a comment Henry Ford made on this issue. When Ford was asked if he had talked with potential customers to get some ideas about how his new cars should be designed he replied; “Of course I haven’t because if I did all they’d say is that they’d like to have faster horses.”

Jobs’ work also reflected his belief in the twin Lean goals of striving for simplicity in all work processes and doing this by maintaining high degrees of focus on continuous improvement. He said:

“That’s been one of my mantras—focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Lean, at its heart, is based on the power of simplicity. The force that drives Lean is a simple and powerful process called Kaizen thinking. Kaizen thinking leads to an intense focus on work processes, especially on the elimination of waste in these processes, using techniques whose power derives from their elegant simplicity. In fact, the thinking processes that Steve Jobs practiced were Kaizen thinking.

Steve Jobs consistently used two of the most powerful tools of Lean, Gemba and Genchi Genbutsu. Gemba is the Japanese term for the “actual place” and genchi genbutsu essentially means “go and see”. Here’s how Jobs describes his use of these essential components of Lean leadership:

“What I do all day is meet with people and work on ideas and solve problems. We have wonderful arguments. And I don’t win all of these arguments … Apple’s a tremendously collaborative company. Do you know how many committees we have at Apple? Zero.”

What Jobs was doing during these vigorous discussions with groups of employees reflects a mirror image of the thinking of Taiichi Ohno who tells that “The gemba and the genbutsu have the information. We must listen to them.”

Finally, Jobs clearly recognized that if Apple wanted collaborative thinking and teamwork to permeate all levels of the organization, they had to be practiced at all levels of the organization. Regarding Apple’s leadership team, Jobs tells us:

“We all meet for three hours once a week and we talk about everything we’re doing. There’s tremendous teamwork at the top of the company which filters down to tremendous teamwork throughout the company.”

The beliefs about leadership and the management practices described by Steve Jobs almost perfectly match those enumerated earlier by Henry Ford and Taiichi Ohno. Apple’s great success, the great success of Toyota and Ford Motor Company, were, in fact, driven by Lean thinking and work processes.

Jobs. Ford. Ohno. Three great Lean leaders. We can help you put their thinking to work in your organization. We have developed a ten-session series of two-hour discussions focused on David Mann’s widely acclaimed book Creating a Lean Culture that can make this happen.

Here are just two examples of unsolicited participant reactions to this series of discussions:

“I just wanted to let you know that I thought you did an excellent job of presenting the material. I like the way the class was so conversational and not just a typical academic sort of class structure.”

“What a great set of experiences! This training really fueled my enthusiasm and gave a tremendous boost to my passion for improvement.”

I’d very much value having the opportunity to meet with you to discuss how we can help your organization put to work the basic thinking and work processes that are driving the great success of Apple, Ford, and Toyota. You can reach me anytime at 314-303-0612. Let’s talk.

Image Credit: “Steve Jobs shows off the iPhone 4 at the 2010 Worldwide Developers Conference” by Matthew Yohe is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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