Nothing wrong with people getting together and kicking around ideas. The trouble seems to come when such an idea swapping session hasn’t really explored the old ideas – especially the big ideas that have proven to be good ones. An old Greek poet Archilochus is noted for having said, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Lean was a good idea – a very, very good idea, for that matter – good for companies, good for economies, good for people, good for the planet. But rather than working on developing it, a whole lot of very prestigious people seem bound and determined to come up with a different idea to be foxes – to keep coming up with a whole lot of other things instead of keeping focused on that one big thing that has proven to be the solution to so many problems.
Seems most ‘thought leadership’ is little more than lurching from one idea to the next either driven by the pursuit of quick easy solutions, or by the need to be perceived as a ‘thought leader’ whether the person actually has an original thought or not.
The second class is pretty easy to spot. Academics are the most blatantly obvious example. They crank out articles, essays and books that are either completely useless or are simply rehashing of someone else’s idea couched in new language. They have to be acknowledged as thought leaders to gain status and to make money. The fact is that simply bundling up someone else’s thoughts and passing them on to young people isn’t really that thought and no one is going to pay much for it.
The others are the big multi-national companies out to dupe investors that they are on the leading edge of innovation. If the investing public believes the company is really out there on the cusp of a whole new understanding of the world and economics. So we have the likes of Kraft and BAE Systems neck deep in the Davos sessions – “The World Economic Forum is an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.” Who wouldn’t want to have their money in that? Never mind the fact that both Kraft has the same old business economic view of chase cheap labor, sell the brand rather than real value, make-money-through-mergers- and acquisitions mentality every other big branded company pursues … and with similarly mediocre results; and BAE makes money in the defense industry first and foremost through lobbying and relationships with military and political people, opening and closing plants and discarding people as if they were disposable supplies … same as the rest of the defense industry.
These are the examples I often rail about for the basic reason that their loud voices of pseudo-creative thought often drown out the message of lean thinking. They throw a lot of eloquent blather out there that can easily distract leaders from the fundamentals.
The reason many leaders are easily distracted, however, leads to that second type of dubious thought leadership – the endless quest for an easy solution. Transforming the culture and fundamental processes of a business is tough work, and requires a lot of effort and difficult decision making for the folks at the top. The lean folks bandy about figures like five years and seven years for such a transformation to reach the point of critical mass – to be self-sustaining.
Life – and the job of a senior leader – would be a whole lot easier and simpler if the same results could be achieved by simply buying an ERP system or some other 'big data' solution, delegating its implementation to underlings, and moving on. Life you also be easily if opening up a plant in Vietnam and a sales office in Brazil were all it took. And it would be easiest of all if the R&D folks came up with some game-changing product that revolutionized the market and the industry. Those things take little more than a stroke of a pen in a budget meeting.
The above pretty well describes the agenda at Davos – new technology, emerging countries and markets, and the need for innovative products. 2,500 hundred ‘thought leaders’ talking about very, very little of practical value for business folks willing to roll up their sleeves to do hard work – but a wealth of impractical quick fixes to just about everything. A collection of foxes hell-bent on beating the lean hedgehogs. Too bad. Imagine the possibilities if that many brilliant leaders from so many fields convened to develop the means to push customer-driven, value-focused, waste-eliminating processes through every facet of human life?