John Seddon - Where Ignorance and Arrogance Collide


Ignorance and arrogance always make for a disastrous combination, and that is precisely what we have in the form of a particularly clueless blowhard in the UK by the name of John Seddon. Better than ten years after John Shook and the boys wrote the seminal book about value stream mapping and its basis for the management and improvement of the business, and better than twenty years after I read about the ‘improvement of process and operation’ in Shingo’s original green book explaining largely the same, this self-absorbed goofball figured out that lean is all about ‘systems thinking’ – the cross functional value stream – and decided that his insight was original. He packaged this rather limited insight into one dimension of lean, calling it “The Vanguard Method” and has built a business around bombastic insults for the lean community as a whole and absurd misrepresentations of everything from the thoughts and legacy of Taiichi Ohno to the basic premises of the Toyota Production System to the body of lean knowledge built up in the United States.

Now Bob Emiliani is a big boy (not really – he is actually a pretty average size guy with a very big brain) and he hardly needs me to help him fight his battles with empty windbags like Seddon. But I am not the sort of guy who sits on the sidelines when a friend is being attacked, and, more important, I do not suffer fools easily – especially ones so arrogant and devoid of the humility necessary to learn and thereby be of benefit to people who look to them for support as Seddon.

So when Seddon calls Bob, “an American lean guru spouting nonsense” and writes, “What would you call a profound idea in this guru’s head? A tourist!” I feel compelled to weigh in. When he dismissed the entire United States as the origin and cause of all lean failure, I really get steamed. In fact, the UK is woefully behind the lean learning curve, contributed little to the body of knowledge (with the notable exception of Dan Jones) and has finally arrived at the party in the last five years or so. Those in the UK who are eagerly trying to learn and get into the game deserve much better than the Vanguard Method and Seddon’s dismissal of every aspect of lean that he doesn’t understand.

Look at some of his assertions:

That Taiichi Ohno “invented” the Toyota Production System and did not teach or mandate tools. Rather, he asserts that Ohno merely instructed managers to observe – the Ohno circle – and had faith that, following enough observation, they would figure out good things. Actually, Ohno was but one of many contributors to the overall, very complex and comprehensive approach to Toyota’s culture, management and operating methods. Perhaps his most valuable contribution was kanban – demand pull – a tool if there ever was one; and he did not make kanban optional (management observations notwithstanding). And Shigeo Shingo instructed industrial engineers in Toyota’s training center for close to twenty years – drilling tools into young engineering minds. But Seddon doesn’t understand the tools and, as is often the case with the arrogant and ignorant, he dismisses that which he doesn’t know as irrelevant.

Just how patently ignorant of lean this character is can be seen in this concerning takt time: “Let’s take ‘takt time’ as an example. Who invented it? Toyota’s Taiichi Ohno1. What problem was he trying to solve? Ensuring that every part of his manufacturing system produced only at the ‘required’ rate, this rate being set by customer demand. Takt time is a measure for managing the heartbeat of a ‘pull’ manufacturing system: essential for orchestrating all a plant’s machines to work at the rate of customer demand. Does any service organisation have this problem? No; since service outfits have no machines they have no need to solve the problem Ohno was solving.” Really? I mean, REALLY???

Is this moron really getting away with telling banks they don’t need to process loans at the rate of customer demand? That hospitals don’t need to process patients at the rate of customer demand? That call centers don’t have to process calls at the rate of customer demand? He asserts that these operations don’t have machines to be synchronized, rendering the concept of takt time irrelevant. In fact, computers, X-Ray devices and telephones are machines, but machines have nothing whatever to do with the concept of takt time. What is plain to see is that Seddon has no clue how to align capacity and flow with demand – the heart of takt time – so he glibly advises his clients that it doesn’t matter.

The heart of the problem with Seddon and his Vanguard Method is that he has no credentials – no qualifications – whatsoever. An academically trained psychologist with no experience at all in the working world. This leads to such nonsensical assertions as “Service differs from manufacturing. There is, inherently, more variety in customer demand. While the Toyota method was developed to solve the problem of how to produce vehicles at the rate of customer demand, in service organisations the problem is how to design the system to absorb variety.

It takes an incredibly small knowledge of both manufacturing and service to believe that (1) this is true, and (2) that it matters. The company President who forwarded Seddon’s insults of Bob Emiliani to me has to build a wide range of custom machines and come up with better than 10,000 possible different aftermarket parts to customer demand. He would be very surprised to learn of the bank that has more possible loan products than that, or the call center that has more question/problem categories than that. Only a fool with no knowledge of manufacturing and even less understanding of the principles underlying the tools of lean would dismiss lean’s tools and principles because they cannot handle the variations of the service business.

The big point of contention with Seddon is Toyota’s respect for people principle. He glibly and incredibly ignorantly slams Bob with “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.”

That Seddon would have so little knowledge of or interest in the toughest aspect of lean – Toyota’s central focus on respect for people – comes as no surprise. He slams everyone from Jurand to Crosby; from Bob Emiliani to Jim Womack, the Baldrige Award, TQM and ISO. In fact, everyone but himself is the target of flippant insult from this excellence lightweight. If he cannot show even minimal respect for the giants upon whose shoulders all of us pursuing lean stand, how can he possibly appreciate the importance of respect for the average person working on the front lines of his client companies?

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