Fad Wars, Fad Shaming and ‘keeping it basic’.

Fad Wars, Fad Shaming and ‘keeping it basic’.

There has been a lot of talk on various platforms on the topics of Fads and their proliferation in the world of business improvement, self-development, and almost every field of human interaction.

I myself was introduced to the concept of fads in 1973, and again in 1977.

In 1973 I was just a nine-year-old kid, building dens with my gang and camping out. I use ‘gang’ here in the sense of a bunch of Huckleberry Finns, not the Krays.

It was around this time that two significant events took place:

  • Bruce Lee movies hit cinemas across the UK.
  • David Carradine walked across the burning sands in the TV series ‘Kung Fu’.

Overnight in Scotland the martial arts boom had arrived, and my gang dived straight into the deep end of the karate and judo pool.

We loved it. We didn’t care for belts, we just trained and developed… because it felt good.

It felt right.

This was forever.

Well, I say forever, for in 1977 all thoughts of martial arts evaporated as quickly as Bruce Lee could punch. It wasn’t another fighting art that had replaced our kung fu focus, it wasn’t even the advent of the air rifle, which we were experimenting with too.

No, it was something altogether more dangerous, more subtle, and it struck fear and terror into those who harboured little skill, or sense of balance.

Yes, it was the skateboard.

In Scotland kung fu became passé, and overnight everyone was carousing around with a piece of plywood under their arm with an old skate nailed on. I was only slightly luckier in that I had a proper wooden skateboard, but there were a few plastic boards around and these could really motor along.

These were held high esteem and only a few kids had them – just enough to maintain the jealousy stakes and to perpetuate the myth that what I had wasn’t good enough, and that I needed the plastic one to be ‘normal’.

If you were a kid with a nailed-on skate, you were a real loser, and if you still thought kung fu was ok, you were a social outcast.

At 13, I had been totally and utterly introduced to Fads, as well as being a socially outcast martial artist.

That’s how they work! Just as you’re starting to get used to the current Fad (we call this ‘daily life’) along comes a more effective, easier, faster, cheaper, less fattening, more flattering equivalent that (so we are told) everyone else is on board with – except you, you loser.

I can live with this and can almost tolerate it if it’s something benign and inert – like a training shoe or, at a push, an iPhone. We naturally expect fashions and technology to move on and to do so quickly.

I really struggle however, when the same thinking is applied to business, and the process of improvement. This is only done to feather nests somewhere, usually in some consulting aviary.

Think back to my skateboard days, hold the thought and then consider these modern-day Fads:

      1. Six Sigma
      2. Lean
      3. Business Process Reengineering (BPR)
      4. Value Stream Management
      5. Toyota Production System (unless you are Toyota)
      6. Balanced Scorecards
      7. The Philadelphia Matrix

Now before you start Googling number seven, don’t. I made it up and it doesn’t exist.

But did you see how easy it was to develop a new jargonised Fad?

That’s how all of the others came into being, having leapt from sound applications in various companies, to Fads that the whole manufacturing and business world just had to copy and learn from. And let’s not kid ourselves either; there are hundreds of others. Most actually work, if applied correctly and resourced appropriately.

Worth repeating that bit: ‘if applied correctly and resourced appropriately.

This is the dollar pond in which the consultancies swim.

In an adult, industrial version of ‘my dad’s bigger than your dad’ they all state that their programme is better than the other guy’s.

Consider the ridiculousness of that statement.

How can one six-sigma programme be different to another? That’s like saying ‘your dad might be bigger, but I’ve got two dads’. In a few years’ time we’ll all be rushing to do 8 Sigma as it just must be better than that old 6 Sigma rubbish.

…and just how many Decision Gate Processes does an industry need?

This is the Bullshido of Fad Shaming.

I have nothing against any of the above processes (except #7) but they need some thought as to how, when, and by whom, they should be introduced. I have seen businesses falling over themselves to get six-sigma installed, when, in truth, the successful, continued pursuit of their lean programme would have yielded the same successes. Nearly every business I have worked in has been great out of the blocks with new initiatives, but need a lot of coaching just to complete a race.

Why is that?

Well, it’s only my opinion, but I have concluded that there are three key reasons. These are:

      1. Leadership
      2. Leadership
      3. Leadership

Surprising, isn’t it?

Well not really. These initiatives don’t just knock the door and let themselves in. Someone at board or senior management level introduces the notion and then follows a normal series of stimulus – response processes.

Here are some examples:

      1. The New Guy. ‘I did this in my last company, and we got great results’.

Never mind what initiative the business is in the middle of, his success story is about to get another airing. More to the point, as soon as your company becomes his last company, you’re going to be left with unfinished business. Again.

      1. The Magpie. ‘I was on a course last week and we were talking about the Philadelphia Matrix – we just gotta have it.’

Why for pity’s sake? Probably the worst type. ‘All the gear and no idea’ as we say in Scotland…

      1. The Believer.

Falling for the old ‘Our consulting business can introduce the Philadelphia Matrix into your organisation in half the time our competition installed it in your competitors. This will allow you to catch them up’ ploy.

Oh no, please tell me that’s not you. Call yourself a leader?

      1. The Misinformed. ‘Our customers are embarking on a new ‘kazian’ process, and we need to get on board quick. Let’s get a couple of black belts trained and show willing.’

Sad but true. I think I battled for 6 months to get this guy to call it kaizen. Sadly, he was removed before he could show willing.

      1. The Converted. ‘Guys, our working together programme has proved successful beyond measure. Our people are energised, and we have a real culture of improvement and involvement in place. I think it’s time we looked at the last 2 percent and so I’m going to propose we examine a programme of quality and statistical tools, to see if it fits.’

Ahhhhhh. True enlightenment always sounds good, doesn’t it?

Let’s recap.

Fads exist because leaders let them.

Example number 1, the new guy, is one of the most common generators of unnecessary initiatives I come across. In a world where people find it easier to get more money and promotions by changing jobs, people are only hanging around for a couple of years then moving if reward is not forthcoming. This means they have two years to make a difference and, more often than not, they bring with them a sure-fire initiative that got them through the initial interview and was then going to be their meal ticket once on board.

It’s really hard to make a difference in two years. Trust me, I know. I trained in a country that concentrates on one theme for decades, and they’ve been showing us the error of our ways for the same period. New guy is going to fail and senses this after about 30 months. Out comes the CV. Then the interviews, the Bullshido of how he now has even more experience of the Philadelphia Matrix.

And then, having survived 3 years, he’s gone, and everyone is asking what he achieved.

I’ve come across all the types above; believe me, they are not made up. I recently visited a business and the MD let it slip that he had heard that we had worked in a competitor of his, and he wanted to get back in front. He was definitely a type 3, and if we had been like other consultancies, he would have had the biggest Philadelphia Matrix programme in Europe.

It doesn’t matter which type of leader opens the door and lets these Fads in. The bigger problem is the complete ignorance of the subject once it gets going. We work in a multinational company that is a household name. I have lost count of the number of separate and concurrent initiatives that have existed in this business over the last ten years, but it doesn’t surprise me when people hang their heads and say ‘oh no, not another bloody initiative. How long will this one last?’

Now that’s not to say that these initiatives are not based on good practice. Usually they are and can deliver outstanding results if followed correctly. I guess the issue I have is the lack of commitment to see a programme through, to be constantly looking for the next best thing. It seems that rebranding and repackaging tools and techniques needs to be done in order for change to be acceptable. We just seem to lack staying power with decisions that we have already made.

Sometimes this is driven by the leadership – they yearn new ideas, new buzzwords, shinier silver bullets, thus creating the pull or demand.

Sometimes it is pushed by consultancies, or academics, or both, to scratch an itch. Either as an output of research, ‘look what your competition are doing – you need to too!’ or, as a means of differentiating a value offering ‘they might be offering 6 sigma, but we do Lean Six Sigma!’

This is why I favour the ‘no brand’ form of intervention for Pilgrim. I don’t like calling it lean, or process excellence, or 6 Sigma. I often have little choice, but my Japanese teachers never used these terms, so I try not to either.

Lean is a good example. More confusing for people now is that some bodies are saying Lean (aka TPS).

This is pure one-upmanship Bullshido.

Define Lean: the elimination of wastes, the creation of flow, the increasing of value.

I’m sure that there are other aspects, but let’s keep it simple.

Now look at the tools and techniques that allow these factors to materialise. Better facility layouts (eliminating waste of transports and aiding flow), inventory reduction programmes (waste of over production and inventory), ergonomic workplaces (eliminating waste of motion) problem solving and poka-yoke (eliminating waste of defects) and many more.

All of these reduce cost and make sure that we’re concentrating on the value add.

But… wait a minute…

Back in the 1920s Henry Ford did all of that and never used the word lean. It was just the best way to make money, making cars. Until of course we asked for colours other than black, but that’s a different story.

Frank Woollard at Morris Motors in the UK did the exact same thing and led us into flow production.

Surely that was just common sense? Design a process that doesn’t have wasteful elements, that moves product from ‘a’ to ‘b’ then ‘c’ to ‘d’, never going back to ‘b’ and continues until completion at ‘z’. Manage this process, and make sure that delays between value-adding activities are minimised. Ensure your performance management system checks the ‘pulse’ at key points or gates along the way.

Did you notice the key word in all of that?

Design. Start as you mean to continue.

If we get things right from the outset and then rigorously stick to the process, we’ll have outstanding results. Putting the time into getting the processes, standard operating procedures, and agendas right, means that there is less need for a bolt on improvement programme later, whether that is kaizen, lean or six-sigma.

I used to get a buzz running kaizen activities and getting great results; 80% reduction in set up time, 70% increase in productivity, 30% reduction in scrap, 50% less floor space, 70% reduction in lead time.

I loved it. It was easy.

Then it struck me.

More often than not, all I was doing was getting the improvement team to bring the existing state back to the state it should have been in or should have been in, had time been allowed in the PLAN phase of PDCA.

  • Getting the manning back to planned numbers for a cell or shift
  • Getting the change over time into the sweet spot in terms of set to run ratio
  • Balancing the flow across various work groups

On some occasions, there was an improvement through the inclusion of some new thinking or a better idea, but in the majority of cases, the new standard was just the original, required design state, only shinier.

That’s why I struggle with terms like ‘future state mapping’ versus current state. The future state = the current state + improvements and changes.

Surely when we talk about creating ‘future state’, this state should be the same as ‘ideal design state’ unless something drastic has happened in either technology, materials design, legislation, or product design?

If not, then why are we employing process designers who get it so wrong?

Or is it that we have employed the right people, but we don’t give them the time to get it right?

We must be doing one or the other, otherwise future state mapping, reengineering and other programmes would never have been invented.

Personally, I think we’re lacking in two areas:

  1. We’re not arming our process designers with the skills of our forebears. Old work study or time and motion analysts were programmed to look at wastes and to design work areas where these could be eliminated.

Sure, they weren’t popular, but for the most part their skills were effective.

It seems that if one guy breaks out the stopwatch and starts a study, he’s a pain in the ass. However, if the work team are trained how to use the watch and then time themselves, then they’re a ‘high-performance work team’.

A rose by any other name?

The skills work, but we’re using them after the fact to improve, not up front to design the process right.

  1. We don’t provide enough time to design the process right before start of production, or job #1. We get drawn along by the ‘need to get to market’ pressure that makes it ok to turn up in the marketplace before the opposition, sporting an inferior set of products.

Worse still is that even after 70 years of W. Edwards Deming telling us to Plan/Do/Check/Action, we ignore this sound advice, hoping that the opposition are wasting critical time to market entry by getting their processes right.

This is ‘maniac management’; rubbing our worry beads and hoping, really hoping that this time all will be different.

I remember being in one client that purported to follow the PDCA cycle in New Product Introduction, investing in getting the processes right before start of production. I was asked to look at their Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) process and when I asked to talk with the cross departmental, multi-functional team that is the powerhouse behind any FMEA activity, I was told that the FMEAs were written and maintained by one engineer.

Another engineer took responsibility for control plans, yet another for process flow charts and so on. In a crazy attempt to get things done quickly, they had apportioned tasks to individuals so that NPI activities could be accelerated.

Accelerated yes, but the quality of the output was marginal.

How can one guy brainstorm all the potential failure modes of a product?

I wrote about this in a previous piece, but this is a classic example of ‘doing the right things, badly’.

Even when I was a proud proponent of kaizen and lean, I quickly realised that it wasn’t a magical, mystical cutting-edge technology I was using to make the improvement; it was tried and tested industrial engineering and work study/work measurement techniques that, somewhere along the way, industry had neglected or removed.

The word kaizen nails it. No further explanation required.

The very first thing Nissan taught me in fixing problems was to dig out the standard operation for the job you were looking at.

  • Did they have one?
  • Was it being followed?

It wasn’t about creating a current state map, or about changing the layout, or putting together a kaizen team.

It was all about identifying whether or not a process existed. Then, establishing where we had deviated from a process that should be delivering a predictable and planned result.

No standard – no kaizen. In fact, No Standardised Work, No Standard WIP, No TAKT time – no lean!

The message is simple. Forget the next best thing, because chances are you already have it and don’t know it because you’re deviating.

You don’t need a Fad – pause for thought… and lay out all the tools you require.

The tools, not the labels.

My #NoBullshido, true lean, fad free diet plan goes like this, and I call it ‘the Essence’:

  • Get back to basics.
  • Understand what should be happening.
  • Find out why it’s not.
  • Eliminate the causes of the deviation.
  • Manage the standard you have re-established.


I truly believe that Fads are here to stay. At least for a while. So if we accept that they are, then the role of consultants, academics, and practitioners the world over should be to ensure that we are not throwing the baby out with the bath water when something comes along that is being marketed, pedalled or bullshido’d as ‘new’.

There is an old consulting saying: ‘if you are not part of the solution, there is good money to be had prolonging the problem’.

And so it is with Fads, jargon, and snake oil.

As always, thanks for reading. All thoughts, opinions and experiences, mistakes and general wrongness are entirely mine and no offence is meant or inferred.

Comments and corrections welcomed.

But No Bullshido.

We don’t do that.

If you’d like to learn more, or discuss further, please contact us via the website links.