An Exchange with Michael Ballé

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Background –
In my original comments on The Lean Manager, I compared The Lean Manager‘s story structure to that of Eli Goldratt’s classic The Goal.

This started a rather deep email exchange with Michael Ballé that goes far deeper into the book and the thoughts behind it than any review I could ever write.

With Michael’s permission, here is that exchange, with minor editing mostly for readability and flow.

My words are in blue.

Michael Ballé is in black.

Text [in brackets] are my additions to help context.



Here’s the acid test:
Would you agree that Jenkinson play a different role from Jonah [in “The Goal”] ?
(hint: he is the lean manager :))



Michael –

Actually, no, I don’t think Jenkinson plays a dramatically different role than “Jonah.”

Perhaps if the story had been written from Jenkinson’s viewpoint, with insight into his thoughts and worries about Andy, rather than a third-person view of his actions and words, I would agree. Then it would be about Jenkinson AS a lean manager.

But what we have is Andy Ward’s experience of Jenkinson. Thus, I don’t get any particular insight into what Jenkinson is actually thinking about how to get his message across to Andy except in the moments when he shares his thinking in conversation with Andy.

For example, Jenkinson (and Amy and Bob) are driving the concept of the problem solving culture from the very beginning. But Andy isn’t “getting it” until late in the story.

What was Jenkinson’s internal response to Andy’s misguided approach? What mental PDCA did Jenkinson apply when he saw the right results being gained at the expense of the social structure in the plant?

Thus, this comes across as a story about Andy Ward learning through his interactions with Jenkinson (and Amy and Bob Wood), and his experiences in trying to apply what they were telling him, rather than a story about Jenkinson’s approach to leading and teaching.

So the story is (to me) much more about Andy *becoming* the lean manager than Jenkinson “being one.”

The real difference between Andy Ward’s experience and that of Alex Rogo (his counterpart from The Goal) is that Andy’s boss is participating directly in Andy’s success vs. just issuing an ultimatum. Thus, Jenkinson embraces the role of the teacher as well as the boss.

Yes – that is exactly the message – that “leading” in the TPS is teaching. But I think [The Lean Manager] is much more about Andy learning it than Jenkinson teaching it.

The characters of Amy and Bob Woods seem to be there to add credibility since a CEO really doesn’t have this amount of time to spend with a single plant manager in a large global company. But they are so well aligned with Jenkinson’s approach that they are surrogates for him.

Thus, Jenkinson is the “teacher” in a story about Andy’s insights and development as a leader.

THANKS for asking the question.
It really made me think.



Good debate.

One of the writing issues we’ve had was that Freddy and one of his CEO friends felt Jenkinson was underdeveloped whereas Tom [the editor] and I felt he was already far too omnipresent compared to Andy Ward. The basic challenge for the book was to share the experience of what it feels like to be a plant manager stuck between the hammer (CEO) and the anvil (real life in the plant).

Jenkinson was conceived to be this Batman-like scary character. He is a teacher, but not a very good one. Basically, his one redeeming teaching feature is his patience, but, hey, the guy is a CEO. I’ve worked with several, and then I’ve spent most of my time working with the plant managers so its the latter’s pain I wanted to share. Having said that, all your points are correct, and indeed, Freddy would agree with you.

More seriously, and I hope I can convince you …that [Jenkinson’s character is not a “Jonah”] because it’s a fundamental point I’m trying to get across. As you say, the fact that Jenkinson is Andy’s boss makes it TOTALLY different from the Jonah situation. Obviously I didn’t manage to get this across well enough, but having to learn from someone who holds the sword over your head is a vastly different issue than having found a great teacher (I’d agree with Woods/Jonah), no matter how cantankerous.

This learning-from-boss issue has to be my top of the list reason why lean is spreading so slowly. So I’d argue that beyond literary devices (how many lean novel plots can there be?) this is indeed a core point of the book.

Where I’ve obviously not written this well enough is that Jenkinson IS teaching, but in a boss kind of way, which is a very different position. In particular, I’ve been very mindful (maybe even heavy handed) of the fundamental asymmetry between roles, and the whole issue of how to deal with a boss’ comments.

By the way, Jenkinson is also doing what he can with the people he’s got (can’t replace them all, right?) For instance, you’ll notice that he gets very different responses from each of his plant managers. Jenkinson’s modus operandi is to show a lean problem to the plant manager, draw a line in the sand about where he wants him next, and push him/support him to get there; As people are different, each plant takes a very different path to lean its operations and requires a different mix or arm-twisting and lecturing.

The reason we never get any direct “look” into what Jenkinson really thinks (although we do many other characters) is that I wanted to reproduce this “boss” aura – no one ever actually knows what the boss thinks. We’ve discussed this quite a bit at the time of the writing, and your comments are spot on so I’m really interested in your opinion.

[a follow-on note]

Jenkinson was actually built on what I saw my dad do when he was CEO (I was helping him at the time with expliciting the “System” – I’m a sociologist). So Jenkinson does five [six, actually] things:

1) He forces. At several points in the book, he tells people: that’s the way it’s going to be. In the German plant, in the French plant with the impromptu kaizen, with the strike, etc. Basically, he forces his managers to commit and/or do something right away IN FRONT OF THEIR TROOPS. This is a specific technique – and not an easy one.

2) He gets them to go further in their thinking. At several points, Jenkinson works with Andy to push his questioning further (not always explicitly “why?”, but it does happen. Freddy, who used to be feared because of 1), was surprisingly in the HOURS he spent doing just that. It’s equally terrifying when you’re on the receiving end because, at first, subordinates are fishing for the answer they think the CEO wants to hear, and not thinking – which makes for a lot of frustration both ways.

3) He forces people to work together, particularly when they don’t want to. Actually, Amy does this in Andy’s plant at first with the production plan issue, but Phil forces the Neville/Andy link, and later the Engineering teamwork.

4) Phil encourages “problems first” at several occasions, which is trying to tell his guys that they come to him with problems rather than let them fester, and that if he learns of the problem from someone else first, that’s bad.

5) He lectures – although this is against his own expressed principles – as he states in the car at the beginning of the book. Phil is not so enamored with the sound of his own voice as the author, but we’re still all human, right?

One more thing Jenkinson does on several occasion:

6) “Stay on target, stay on target” – Andy keeps being distracted by all sorts of things, internal politics, problems in his plant, etc. Jenkinson realigns him at almost every conversation 🙂

The two insights we have in Phil’s thinking are:
– when do I pull the plug (close the plant, fire the plant manager/regional manager/sales VP, etc.)
– dealing with the politics of senior management

In writing the [business novel] genre You’re stuck between expliciting the thinking (the lecturettes, love the word), and sharing the experience through an action scene. Then there are the limits of the author’s writing talent – I had to really sweat it before trying work within the plant as opposed to out of it (The Gold Mine), because trying to describe a working plant environment is something of a writing challenge.



Michael –

A couple of questions –
Who is the “ideal reader” – the target audience – for “The Lean Manager?”

What are the explicit teaching points the story is intended to present to the reader? What does this ideal reader take away?

What should the target reader do differently after reading the story?

What aspect of the story gives him that insight?

Did you have those things in mind as you wrote it? Or did the emerge with the story development?

I see Andy as the central character of the story. It is he who undergoes the personal transformation, and the storyline revolves around his interaction with the other characters. As you intended, is a sympathetic character that many people the in the same position will identify with.

Thus the learning from the book is transmitted through Andy, based on his experiences.

I see Jenkinson as a (primary) supporting character, who in combination with the others, shapes Andy’s experience, and through that, shapes the reader’s experience. But in the end, he is mainly a teaching character.

Yes, he is also the boss and needs the results. He leads by example. He teaches “forcing teamwork” by doing it. He makes his intentions crystal clear, does not do hollow posturing, and can play the political resistance against itself. But to Andy, he is sensei.

A good student will be motivated by wanting to please the teacher. In this case, it is also an economic / career imperative, but in the end, it is about a motivated student.

The key points of what to teach certainly come out in the process, including the fact that Andy learns a few things the hard way in spite of being told (like the teamwork thing).

But overall, it seems to be about “How to be taught” by a true lean manager more than it is “how to teach like one.”

If the key point is to teach a senior executive HOW to be a “lean manager” then I guess I’d have written it from the teacher’s perspective rather than the student’s.

If I were a CEO or senior executive, I’d like to know what Jenkinson was thinking when Andy was getting bogged down in distractions. If the target audience for the story is a senior executive or CEO, then I would think the CEO character has to be the sympathetic character, with the frustrations and problems that these guys can relate to. Then they can see he isn’t “Batman” in a comic-book city, but he is dealing with the same problems they are.

John Shook made an attempt at that in “Managing to Learn” but the scenario was too limited to really create any dramatic “ah-ha” moments.

I think Dr. Bahri’s self-experience (Follow the Learner) was a unique perspective of learning-by-doing, but, again, the scenario is too limited for most people to see beyond a medical or dental practice.

So – after re-reading my own note above, and going back to your earlier note regarding your debate about Jenkinson’s character development vs. his “omnipresent” relationship with Andy
– I guess I’d say that:

With Andy as the point-of-view character, then Jenkinson’s development is appropriate.

But if Jenkinson is actually the title character, then I can see where Freddy and his CEO friend felt that he should be more developed. The difference is that, to get that development, the perspective of the story has to shift from Andy to Jenkinson as well. Then the “omnipresence” drops away as an issue because it is about Jenkinson teaching rather than Andy being taught.

One possible follow-on story could be this shift to the teacher’s perspective. Perhaps there is a new acquisition and Jenkinson assigns Andy to mentor the manager there through a turn-around as Andy’s next development assignment. Now Andy is the teacher, (with Amy’s help, or through the A3 process with Jenkinson), and we see the teacher’s perspective as he is trying to keep the student focused on the right things in spite of the noise and chaos that, perhaps, Jenkinson is throwing at it with his demands for performance.

Andy must simultaneously understand “the main problem” in the plant, and get his student to understand it without just telling him the answers. Maybe he sees the guy as a hopeless concrete head, and Jenkinson has to force him to be patient and stick with it.

What does a competent operations manager need to learn to be able to teach someone else? How does he learn it? What is the development process for that?

Then we would have a story of not only how to BE a lean manager, but how to teach one to teach another.




The books are about 1) teaching and 2) sharing an experience. It all flows from here – I never had a target audience in mind.

The Gold Mine was all about describing TPS from the point of view of a smart guy, who’s got the power to affect changes, but has got to learn all this stuff – that was Jenkinson then. The experience I tried to share then was “The Curse Of Knowledge”.

To Jenkinson most of TPS is new and counterintuitive and every time he’s picked something up, there’s more to it (and I still experience this fifteen years later), because you don’t know what you don’t know.

And for Bob Woods, the impossibility of expressing what you’ve figured out over years to someone, hence the annoyance and grumpiness (not “Jonah” 😉 ). Add Amy, who thinks she’s getting it because the tools make sense to her, but she doesn’t understand the wider business picture nor why older people have trouble thinking that way and you’ve got The Gold Mine. Now, the trick is in

1) sharing an experience and
2) conveying the concepts, so sometimes I get it right sometimes not.

Pat Lancaster of Lantech fame, made the same type of comment [about The Gold Mine] you did: “Why didn’t you write it from the plant manager’s perspective?” To convey the absolute panic of the moment you’re about to pull the plug on the MRP. The comment stuck, and eventually that became The Lean Manager.

The gimmick in [The Lean Manager] is that BOTH Jenkinson and Andy are “the lean manager” – Jenkinson is the closest I can make it to a lean boss outside Toyota (those I’ve known anyway) and Andy is learning that stuff – with the added twist of the asymmetry of relationship that defines authority relationships.

The Gold Mine was about TPS, and this one is about Toyota Way.

My overriding problem as a consultant on the shop floor when I talk to senior execs is: “Are we on the RIGHT problems?” The problem with consultants (me included) is that they seldom understand enough of the business to focus on the right things (not a problem to Toyota consultants with suppliers, because, well, auto is auto).

So I like the idea of Amy consulting with some company and getting them to fix the shop floor and yet having no results on the business because the real problem is in engineering – where she’s got everything to learn (enter Woods & Jenkinson). If I do that, definitely “teaching the stuff” becomes an issue (since this is my specific expertise, I’ve resisted going there so far not to pollute the message too much with my socio-techno stuff)

Will have to let this one simmer for a while.

In any case, the one main point of the entire book is that you can’t do lean to someone else, and you can’t have someone else to it for you – TPS is a line management method, and a problem solving attitude.

I strongly believe that this misunderstanding is at the root of the slow progress of lean – we keep preaching to the choir, but really it’s the hard nosed finance-driven managers we need to interest (more for the next book).

The only way I know how to fight on the field of ideas is by writing books and then getting them into people’s hands. So now that it’s out, I’d like to get it in the hands as as many people as I can to try and change the zeitgeist… Not my favourite activity!


I really wanted to share this exchange with you because it highlights a couple of the main problems that are encountered in any attempt to implement real change.

To quote again from Michael’s note:

“In any case, the one main point of the entire book is that you can’t do lean to someone else, and you can’t have someone else to it for you – TPS is a line management method, and a problem solving attitude.

I strongly believe that this misunderstanding is at the root of the slow progress of lean – we keep preaching to the choir, but really it’s the hard nosed finance-driven managers we need to interest.”

And, in the end, there it is.
Ironically, if you are even reading this, you already know it.

The Lean Manager is a success story, driven by the people who are actually responsible to deliver the results. While Michael and I may quibble about whether or not Phil Jenkinson is a “Jonah” character in the sense of The Goal is a discussion about literary structure rather than the core message here. What all of these books have in common is that it is the leaders who drive successful change.

The “slow progress of lean” comes in situations where the implementation is delegated to staff with the charter to “do it to someone else.” And, in my experience (having spent a painful amount of time as that staff), that situation is far more common out there.

I have more to go on this, but I am going to leave it for another day.

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