When Bad Things Happen to Good Concepts

Most fatal management fads begin innocently enough, just as most hurricanes begin as the flap of a butterfly's wing in some dank, impenetrable jungle pristine rain forest.

Take, for example, the pencil sharpener. In concept the pencil sharpener is very simple:

1) A cutting surface (blade) fixed at an angle to the shaft of the pencil
2) A guide for the pencil shaft to meet the blade

That's it!

But concepts alone aren't very useful. They also need context in order to be turned into valuable applications. Context contains two things critical to successful application of the concept:
  • Goals
  • Assumptions

The picture of the yellow pencil sharpener is one applications of the pencil sharpener concept, with the following goals and assumptions:
  • Cheap
  • Simple
  • #2 Lead Pencil
  • standard writing use

A different context leads to a different application:

  • Easy Grip
  • Looks good with grapes
  • eyebrow enhancement use

Same concept, different context, different result. The great thing about a good concept is that it can be successfully applied in many contexts.

For instance, here's an application that adds greater efficiency of alignment and speed of turning for finer points. [Click picture for larger version]

Refinements continue...

...but eventually, consultants get involved, and you end up with...

Which wouldn't be so bad, except the consultants insist that the color of the boot is a key system parameter, and that you need to hire a group of experts in rabbit husbandry to define and monitor key metrics such as RPPPS (Rabbit Pellets Per Pencil Sharpened).

How can such bad things happen to good concepts?

Simple. The executive who read about the new concept in Harvard Business Review doesn't really want to apply the concept. No, he wants an instant application that gives him the same results as the HBR case study! And he wants it in time to effect this year's earnings!! There's no time for a complete definition of context, and besides, we're mostly similar to those other companies anyway, so let's bring in a complete application, tweak it for the most important unique characteristics of our company, and get a quick win!

But since we don't know anything about the new concept - and because we're in a hurry - we don't realize that the color of the boot was only relevant because the last application the consultant built was at a bullfighting establishment in Matamoros. Dios Mio!

The overly complicated solution isn't the only enemy of the concept. There is also danger in the overly simple solution; an application that disregards part of the original concept as unnecessary because good results can be achieved in certain contexts without it.

Thus, this perfectly good pencil sharpener:

Of course, a comprehensive training program IS a critical success factor in your implementation program.

Lest you think I exaggerate, let me disabuse you of that notion with more practical examples.

We begin in a supermarket somewhere in Detroit circa 1956. An oriental man watches a woman grab a box of Post Toasties from a shelf. A minute later a stockboy replaces the box with another from the stockroom. Suddenly the man has a Eureka! moment that would rival the original!

That oriental man, Taiichi Ohno, marveled at how the stockboys only replenished what customers had already ordered, and wondered if it would be possible to build a system where his employer, Toyota, could efficiently build and deliver cars that way. He decided to try, and when he went back to Japan, he set about creating the first Just In Time production system. It took years, but eventually he turned the auto industry upside down with a simple concept: constantly strive to eliminate muda, or waste, in 7 areas:

  • overproduction
  • transportation
  • motion
  • waiting
  • processing
  • inventory
  • defects

During his career, he developed numerous tools and techniques in the context of the Toyota workplace. But in each case two of his key principles were "Misconceptions create waste", and "go beyond common sense". I think he'd proudly wear the Clueless badge of honor, don't you?

Of course, when U.S. auto makers finally succumbed to Toyota's application of Ohno's Lean Production system, they scrambled to catch up. Can you guess what they did?

Yep. They brought in all the tools Toyota used, such as the vaunted Kanban (Japanese for "card") system. They obsessed over the form of the Kanban (special golf balls? magic plastic squares?), even though the form of the signal didn't matter at all. And they got everyone organized into quality circles even though those were originally created to deal with the unique context of Japanese culture! Can't you just see that original stockboy, now a seasoned production worker in Detroit...

And the moral of the story is?

Never confuse ________ and ________ with ________!

Can't fill in the blanks? Another reading should do the trick. If you know the answers, then you're ready for the next installment. In part two we'll look at a real-life example of the Bowie knife pencil sharpener problem using Eli Goldratt's Theory of Contraints.

posted by Mike at 5:15 PM


Blogger Unknown said...

Dat, Sir, was a thing of beauty!

I'm going back to read it again.

12:34 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

Thank you, Mark!

7:08 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

yer welcome! came back to read it again and steal a vizual

7:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Yeah, great post! BTW: there are 8 wastes - the extra one, which you elude to in your text is, Unused Creativity. By freeing people up from the mindless processes we have them working in, we allow them to think and be creative. Sort of listening to the warning of Adam Smith; "If man is not asked of his work..."

5:21 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

John, you are absolutely right. Good concepts are the antithesis of micromanagement. They provide frameworks upon which people can create successful applications using their knowledge of their unique context.

7:29 AM  
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5:16 AM  
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5:19 AM  
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5:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I love it when good humor combines with solid content. Well seen, and well said. Thanks,
Charlie Green

12:53 PM  
Blogger Mike said...


Thanks for the kinds words. I love the number you did on Attract and Retain in the same vein!


1:05 PM  
Blogger The Fool said...

Great man. So much humour and also thought. Liked the way u have put it together. Will come back to read this again and also other stories. Keep it going.

9:07 AM  
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11:14 AM  

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