What’s eating John Seddon?

I want you to cheatBack in 1992, Seddon published “I want you to cheat,” as a distillation of then seven years of consulting experience with service organizations in Britain. It contains some general principles, supported by examples. It is quite readable, and contains no personal attacks on anyone. While “I want you to cheat” does not reference any giant on whose shoulder the author sits, more recent publications from Seddon repeatedly acknowledge Deming and Ohno.

It was his comment that “This respect for people stuff is horseshit” at a conference in Iceland in 2012 that drew my attention to his work. While certainly aggressive, it was not a personal attack. The latest kerfuffle is about the following statements in his 11/2013 newsletter:

“Every time I have been to the jamboree they have had an American lean guru spouting nonsense and this is no exception. This time it’s the guru who claims lean fails because it is what he calls ‘fake lean’ and his lean is the way to go! His ‘real lean’ starts with ‘respect for people’. I can imagine ‘respect for people’ events and tee-shirts (he sells tee shirts) while there is no change to the system conditions that drive misery and other forms of sub-optimisation. Only in America; the home of the terrible diseases.

What would you call a profound idea in this guru’s head? A tourist!”

bob emiliani

Bob Emiliani

The target of this attack, although unnamed, recognized himself. It’s Bob Emiliani, and he posted a response on his blog, entitled Kudos to John Seddon.  Bill Waddell then chimed in with John Seddon – Where Ignorance and Arrogance Collide. To Bob, Seddon is like a student who did not understand the concept of “respect for people,” while Bill dismisses Seddon as a blowhard from a backward little country who has failed to understand the depth and the subtlety of the US version of Lean.

Bill Waddelll

Bill Waddell

There is a good reason while the etiquette of on-line discussion groups forbids personal attacks: they cause discussions to degenerate into trash talk and name calling. It may be briefly entertaining, but quickly turns off readers who don’t have a dog in these fights and just want to information. Besides insulting Bob Emiliani, Seddon has steamed up patriot Bill Waddell with derogatory comments about America. You reap what you sow.

I have, however, heard comments that were as strident as Seddon’s from other consultants, from Japan. They were equally dismissive of US Lean, of American management in general, and even the country as a whole. This was usually, but not always, in private communications rather than in publications. These “insultants,” however, often got away with it, with audiences looking past the invective for useful ideas, and I think it is the appropriate response. Ignore the rant and engage on substance. If some is offered, you will be better off for it.

It is also worth pondering why people feel compelled to act this way. For John Seddon, I don’t know; I am not privy to his thoughts, but I can guess. We should remember that, in the market of ideas, we in the US have a worldwide home court advantage. Ideas command more attention and are more credible simply because of the “Made in America” label.

Lean is the most ironic example. The Toyota Production System did not come out of the US, yet the worldwide internet chatter and consulting business about it is dominated by a US version known as “Lean,” which is as faithful to the original as Disney’s Aladdin and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are to Arabian Nights and Victor Hugo’s novel. Borrowing, metabolizing and even distorting ideas from other cultures is done everywhere, and is to be expected; what is special about the US is that the American version radiates back to the world and overwhelms the original.

Last year, the Olympics opening ceremony in London reminded the world where the industrial revolution began. For more than a century, the world looked to Britain as a model for politics, economics, and manufacturing, but these days are gone, and for an idea to come from Britain is now a handicap rather than a credibility enhancer.

John Seddon happens to be British. For 28 years, he has been making a living as a consultant to service organizations in the public and private sector and, as anyone with this kind of experience would, he has developed an approach to doing it. We may or may not agree with it, but it deserves a respectful hearing. What I read into Seddon’s current stridency is that he has not been getting it. I think he is turning up the volume to prevent his voice being drowned out in the Lean tsunami coming out of the US.

Seddon dismisses Lean consultants as “tool heads.” I like tools. I use tools all the time, both in private and professional life. But I don’t use them indiscriminately. Following are three questions about a tool, that I would not ask about a hammer or a phone, but would about, say, Kanban or SMED:

1.    Who invented this tool?
2.    What problem was he/she trying to solve?
3.    Do I have that problem?

They strike me as a reasonable way to decide whether to apply it or not. And where did I find these questions? On John Seddon’s website. I think I will use them with clients.


8 comments on “What’s eating John Seddon?

  1. Michel – Personal attacks do not concern me; misunderstandings, and the spreading thereof, do. I did not dismiss Mr. Seddon in my blog post, “Kudos to John Seddon.” What I said was:

    “John is representative of many, many people who do not understand the history or significance of the “Respect for People” principle in Lean management.”

    His misunderstanding is something to comprehend and correct, not dismiss.

    I neither see Mr. Seddon as a blowhard nor the UK as a backward little country. As Frank George Woollard’s biographer, I have too much respect for the industrial achievements of the U.K. past and present.

    Lastly, I was not referring to the U.S. version of Lean in my blog post.

    • Thanks for the clarification, and sorry for my mistake. I corrected the post. My sentence applied only to what Bill said, not you.

  2. Interesting blog Michel.

    I would like you to please tell us more about what you mean by the following line

    “For more than a century, the world looked to Britain as a model for politics, economics, and manufacturing, but these days are gone, and for an idea to come from Britain is now a handicap rather than a credibility enhancer”

    Are you stating everything the British did in these areas (& still do) lacks credibility, I wouldn’t agree.

    Or are you stating all ‘ideas’ that come out of Britain, due to these specific areas & ideologies ? Again I wouldn’t agree

    Thanks for any clarification you could offer

  3. I believe in giving people and ideas due consideration based on their merits, regardless of where they come from. Otherwise, prejudice can make us miss out on big things, or make too much of things that aren’t quite so big.

    When I first went to Japan in 1977, a classmate of mine described this move as “career suicide.” Who in his right mind would want to go to such a backwater? 10 years later, the business community, particularly in manufacturing, was idealizing everything Japanese. 20 years later, this fad has passed.

    The “more than a century” period I was referring to is roughly from 1750 to 1900, and my comment is strictly about perceptions by others, not my own, and not reality. I don’t discount anything just because it comes out of Britain.

  4. Those of us who work trying to fix the public sector, are bound to be frustrated (even angry) at the prevailing model of management (in Deming’s terms) which holds sway. So much keeps going wrong yet we try and repair old models. Lean will never remotely get the intellectual better of systems thinking despite the respect element claimed (something I need to understand the reasoning of) and lean can become mean all too easily. It is what it is.

    I’m sorry that the ‘diseases’ Seddon talks of aren’t recognised more. The US appears to be an amazing country but with major people let-downs in education, health care, crime, poverty and (yes) systems. To then insult the UK is uncalled for and inaccurate and might be seen as the aggressive and bullying behaviour you complain of. Some might even see it as a US trait…not me!

    Seddon needs to be let go. We need his anger and we need to listen to his counterintuitive views and understand the essence of what he has to say as Bob seems to suggest. We can all learn. Ironically, Seddon is deeply respectful of people but he is rude…I can live with that. We all should.

  5. John Seddon uses crude language in his presentations. He went through a phase of high irritation a few years ago when he thought he was getting a hearing in Whitehall but then was, predictably, shunted back out again. His speeches from that time were particularly biting, sarcastic and tinged with the tiredness of frustration. Lately he seems much more relaxed, but his style still uses a lot of crudity. It isn’t regarded as professional over here at all.

    On your other, rather bizarre, point. It’s strange to allege that ideas coming from the UK are often automatically discredited. I don’t find that to be true at all.

    Incidentally, in the field of systems thinking, many of the originators were/are British.

    The worst thing about the UK is that too many Britons think that the USA is the best thing since sliced bread, and seek to mimic and imitate popular USA trends, rather than learning from the best of what the USA comes up with. It’s a question of focus and is fuelled by post-war British self-abnegation. Still, internationally the UK’s recent negative evaluation of itself is mostly not shared by foreigners, and the country remains globally influential on many counts.

    • In the US, ideas coming from anywhere else have a difficult time. One of the greatest hurdles to getting ideas from the Toyota Production System adopted in this country is that they came from Japan. Instead, they have been processed into something called “Lean,” losing the bulk of their content, and eventually being attributed to domestic sources, like Henry Ford. It’s nationalism at work, and is not particular to the US.

      Your last paragraph actually makes my point. You are saying that ideas coming from the US are taken more seriously in the UK than ideas from the UK, which has to be frustrating to creative Brits. While office work and administration has not been the focus of my work, I don’t find his writings any less professional than the bulk of business writing.

      As for crudity and bluntness, which has not been my policy, Seddon’s is no worse than that of many respected Japanese consultants, nicknamed “insultants.”

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