To be sure, in such a world, today’s conventional notions of corporate structure and finance would go by the wayside. Dr. Womack discovered this firsthand in the late 1990s when he and a young colleague named Guy Parsons bought a near-moribund bicycle manufacturer named Merlin Metalworks as a test bed for lean manufacturing principles. Mapping the flow of work, Dr. Womack and Mr. Parsons did all the right things, according to lean thinking: They dropped throughput time to one day, reduced inventory, streamlined order fulfillment, sold off their unnecessary machinery, and sent all their back-ordered stock to customers. Then they sought a bank loan. The loan officer looked at the empty shop floor, warehouse, and receivables books and said, in effect, “We can’t lend you anything. You’ve got no assets.” In other words, the very qualities that spelled success in a lean world made it look like a failure in the traditional world of finance. Dr. Womack and Mr. Parsons sold the bicycle business shortly thereafter.
To Dr. Womack and Mr. Jones, stories like that are proof of the power of their approach. If it weren’t so significant, the impact that it has would not be so obvious. “It’s as if we’ve finally learned how to change society,” says Dr. Womack. “It happens not from the top, but, strand by strand, from the bottom.” And then he describes a conversation he had with a man he met during a visit to his daughter’s college, an African-American evangelist who is building a mission hospital in Tanzania. “You realize,” his acquaintance remarked, “that even if you succeed, you’d only make it easy for people to have more material affluence. That won’t make them any better off or any happier. It’s just a losing game.”
First, Dr. Womack ruefully agreed. But then he said, “Look, the most satisfying thing in life isn’t to have wealth. It’s to be part of a creative, productive process. Even climbing toward heaven’s gate is a process. Material wealth is just the excuse for raising our awareness of the processes we’re in.”
In the end, he realized, that’s utopia — not to live in a lean world but to be preoccupied, like Dr. Womack and Mr. Jones, in helping the world we’re in get a little bit leaner each day.
Reprint No. 05208
Art Kleiner ([email protected]) is the “Culture & Change” columnist for strategy+business. He teaches at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. His Web site is www.artkleiner.com. Mr. Kleiner is the author of The Age of Heretics (Doubleday, 1996) and Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege, and Success (Currency Doubleday, 2003).