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.