13 Lean Leadership Lessons from Dwight D. Eisenhower

By Jon Miller Published on October 14th, 2008

Dwight D. Eisenhower served as the 34th President of the United States of America, from 1953 to 1961. He was born on October 14, 1890. Today is the 108th anniversary of his birth. Eisenhower was a man of great insight gained through action. He knew war, and hated it. He knew hard work, and loved it. Here we share his timeless words of leadership which speak to us and even help us understand the lean philosophy.
happy birthday.PNG
1. “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”
In Japanese we say “genchi genbutsu” and in English “go see for yourself”. The lean philosophy is based on management by fact, and the belief that facts exist where they are created, not far away from it. All improvement, whether it is technical innovation, process method redesign, or policy, must be based on the actual needs of the situation observed for oneself.
2. “Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.”
Push vs. pull. One of the challenges of lean management is to change our habits from pushing to pulling. In terms of production, pushing is making whatever is convenient or least problematic, rather than making just what the customer (next process) needs right now. In terms of leadership, push is top-down command-and-control while pull is motivating and teaching to create alignment of purpose.
3. “The purpose is clear. It is safety with solvency. The country is entitled to both.”
Safety first, then profitability. The purpose then, is to do good for people over the long-term. Eisenhower was prescient in seeing the danger of buying short-term security by running up large debts. His admonitions on the ability of our citizens, our country and our most proud institutions to meet its financial responsibilities ring particularly true with the recent events in the financial markets.
4. “Things are more like they are now than they ever were before.”
This is a curious turn of phrase. On the one hand this is commonsense almost to the point of being nonsensical. On the other hand, there is a deeper meaning. Things may be better or worse than they were in the past, better or worse than they will be in the future. None of that matters since all we have is our ability to take action to make things better now. You can only compare now with now.
Taiichi Ohno said something similar:

“…when I think of ten or twenty years into the future, the changes to come will be unimaginable to us today and there is no time to be sentimental. The past is the past and what is important is the current condition and what we will do next to go beyond where we are today. It is meaningless to compare before kaizen and after kaizen.”

5. “What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight – it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
Kaizen. The rise and fall of countless civilizations attest to the fact that is not how big, strong or good you are but how hard you are working to improve that makes the difference over time. It is not the past revenues, reputation, bank account or accumulated glories and credentials that matter. All of those thinks can be washed away in a week. What matters is whether you can pick up and keep fighting, building and improving.
6. “Our real problem, then, is not our strength today; it is rather the vital necessity of action today to ensure our strength tomorrow.”
Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho also said, “We place the highest value on actual implementation and taking action.” No matter how excellent we think we are, we must take action today to be fit for tomorrow. It is not who we are today but what we do today that matters.
7. “When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
Continuous improvement. Chipping away at problems through daily management, kaizen and attention to details results in breakthrough improvements again and again over the years. Teaching the habit of chipping away relentlessly at the stone, by example, to everyone, is one of the key responsibilities of a lean leader.
8. “Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionists and rebels – men and women who dare to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.”
Challenging fixed ideas and paradigms. These words speak to the importance of a culture that is open not only to improvements that are comfortable but also to challenges to the status quo. Too often it is the things or policies that we never adequately challenge that result in our downfall. We gradually become comfortable with a situation that at one time bothered us, or feel powerless to make a change, or we are attacked as disloyal for speaking the truth. It is the harder path, but we need to chip away even at these monuments that stand in the way of progress.
9. “How far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without?”
Change is the only constant. Sometimes we hold on too hard to what we have and as a result we kill the very thing we are trying to protect. Resistance to change is futile, but we can take action to direct the change and be a positive part of it. Once we recognize this, we can evaluate what truly is important and how best to protect it within a changing world.
10. “If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.”
Andon. These words make sense from a lean point of view from two perspectives. First, a fundamental principle of lean management is to make problems visible. This may not require making a small problem bigger, only making it clearer or bringing it into focus. The andon system (andon = Japanese for lamp) allows team members to call attention to a problem so that the local support can arrive immediately to contain the problems. In fact most problems are bigger than they appear precisely because we are only seeing a small visible portion of the problem. We don’t need to enlarge it if we can simply make it more visible. Second, taking a problem situation and enlarging it can be likened to creating the so-called burning platform, or raising the sense of urgency to a critical level compels us to take action. Most of the time these big problems are already in front of us and we do not need to enlarge them in fact, but only in terms of importance within our minds.
11. In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

PDCA. Most plans don’t go according to plan. Even the best plan created by the brightest minds does not survive contact with reality. So what we need is a strong and adaptive planning process. The PDCA cycle is a way of thinking, managing and improving that is central to the lean philosophy. When we plan, do, check and act over and over this is planning. We plan by going to the cornfield to see the actual condition and understand. We do by taking action. We check by going back to see the results for ourselves. We act by learning from success and failure to set the next plan of action. The quality of the resulting plans and actions are improved as we learn through PDCA.
12. “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”
Former Toyota President Gary Convis shares advice given to him by his mentors to “lead as if you had no power”. We can influence others to think and act differently only by motivating them to do so. The best long-term motivation is internal motivation based on shared purpose, individual desires and an understanding of how these are aligned.
13. “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.”
Whatever we make room for in our hearts, we can make into reality.
Whether these ideas come from the U.S. or the Far East, from 50 years ago or 5,000 years ago, such wisdom and leadership insight is timeless. We should borrow shamelessly from the best of our leaders and from successful philosophies such as the Toyota Production System.

  1. Gabriela

    October 15, 2008 - 11:02 am

    It’s impressive how you were able to capture the essence of those words.
    While reading, I realized that, indeed, lean philosophy is universal; it addresses the human heart and mind, and that is why it has so much appeal. And that is why it can be implemented successfully everywhere on the planet.

  2. Matt

    October 22, 2008 - 3:31 pm

    It would be wonderful if you could post your sources for these quotes. I have a number of Eisenhower’s books and I love his writing. I have never been able to confirm that Num. 11 is actually his quote.
    Good article though!

  3. Jon Miller

    October 22, 2008 - 3:42 pm

    Hi Matt,
    The quotes come from various sources and I can’t remember them all. Research indicates that in his book “Six Crises” Richard Nixon attributed the “plans are useless, planning is indispensable” quote to Eisenhower.

  4. John Santomer

    November 8, 2008 - 12:32 am

    General George Patton Jr. writing to his diary. Some historians say that he was correct If he had been given the necessary gasoline by Eisenhower, he could have ended the war 9 months early and saved 750,000 casualties. Eisenhower who gave the order to withhold gas to Patton claimed to his death that he made the right decision.
    Denied permission to close the Falaise pocket, Patton persuaded Bradley to let him drive eastward to the Seine River. He attained this objective, and on the night of August 19, his men were the first to cross it. By that action, Patton made it impossible for the Germans to use the Seine River as a new defensive line. By now, all the Germans in Normandy were fleeing. Patton’s XX and XII Corps joined in the pursuit. The situation was so fluid that Eisenhower, despite the pre-invasion plan to halt at the Seine, let the Allied forces continue their forward progress. The Allies crossed the Seine River, took Paris, and sped through northern and eastern France.
    To his son, Patton wrote, “We are really having a swell time.” To his wife, “Really I am amazed at the amount of ground the Third Army has taken, and it is chiefly due to me alone.”
    And suddenly, at the height of the excitement, as the war seemed to be coming to a close, at the end of August, there was no gasoline for the combat units. The logistical system, prepared to nourish troops proceeding gradually toward Germany, was unable to keep up with the accelerated course. Three months after D-day, the pursuit came to a stop. The Allies had to wait for the supplies to catch up. In his diary, Patton wrote, “It is horrible to halt.”
    By displaying an audacity that looked like recklessness, Patton had roared across France. He exploited Bradley’s local breakthrough into a breakout, then transformed the breakout into a theater-wide pursuit. Leading the movement, he propelled the Allies far beyond what the planners had expected. He had accomplished this in a single month.
    As though this were not enough, a unique situation had developed, a circumstance rarely if ever seen. Patton directed two major attacks going in opposite directions, one westward through Brittany to Brest, and the other eastward toward Germany to the Meuse River. The advance units of both endeavors at the beginning of September were 500 miles apart. Truly a phenomenal feat.
    About the Author : Martin Blumenson is a distinguished military historian, editor of The Patton Papers, and author of Patton: The Man behind the Legend, 1885-1945 and numerous other books on World War II. Blumenson served under General George S. Patton, Jr. in the Third Army Headquarters during World War II and later served as historian in the U.S. Army’s Office of the Chief of Military History. As a soldier, he earned the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
    He went on to become an expert on military history, teaching at institutions including The Citadel, Naval War College and George Washington University and contributing to publications including Yale Review, American Historical Review, and Journal of American History.

  5. Chris

    June 6, 2010 - 6:27 am

    I believe your interpretation of Eisenhower’s statement, “Things are more like they are now, than they ever were before” is a superficial reading and misses the Great Man’s poignant warning. In my observation of social history, dynamics present in the past, get repreated over and over again. For example, In the U.S. we have always had a fraction of the population that owned most of the wealth. Despite the Great Depression and other, various market crises, as well as Poor People’s Movements (see Cloward and Piven), all of which created instability and economic crisis, this dynamic conimues to operate today. Eisenhower’s point is that it the very essence of how human beings interact (which is how history is created) doesn’t change. Indeed, it gathers more momentum over time and so whatever was present before, becomes more exagerrated and dangerous. And, of course, making change even more difficult, maybe even impossible. Examples Abound: In America, we no longer see “greed” as a lack of morality. The Wealthy have grown exponentially over the last decade in this country. The Rich seem ignorant of the fact, (or just don’t care) that resources that create wealth are finite. They do not weant to live in an Egalitarian society. I give you the International Market Crisis, from which we may never recover. The B.P. Oil Spill includes all dynamics stated above. We certainly will never recover from this vast pollution of the shores in the South. The work-like-a-dog class of poor people:generations of fishers, shrimpers, boat builders, and all involved in serving the tourist Industry will become not only poor, but destitute (“more of the same; but exagerrated). Then we will all wish FL. will be flushed by a huge Hurricane, (it’s coming with Global warming) and we won’t have to think of what we did to the environment or people. Though I could continue with examples for the rest of the day, I must go out and ACT to rectify, be it a very small contribution, I must include the “Holy Wars”. Since there have been people on this planet, there have been wars in the name of Religion. Try to wrap your head around it. Although I am sick to death of the recruitment of Muslim Children into Geohodists (exagerration of past history where only Men were expected to kill anyone not like them);they are no worse than the Fundamentalist Chritians in America who, if you go to a “Praise and Worship Service”, the language the Minister uses is WAR language and HE inevitable preaches from the Old Testament. They have an angry, vengeaful God to be feared. The same God as the Muslim Geohodists. Christian Fundamentalists (like Sarah Palin) preach Hatred of everyone who is not a WASP. Their doctrine is all about Morality, not about Love and Forgiveness which the New Testament clearly staes is the expectation to call oneself a Christian. They are dangerous people. They always have been, but with their growth in numbers, theyare electing Candidates of their ilk to the U.S. Government. Their agenda is to steal our civil liberties. Again, they have always been with us, but practiced their religion to themselves without advocating any violence. This has changed – excaggeration.Yes, Mr. Eisenhower, things are more like they were than ever before. We could really use a Staesman like you to help. Mr. Obama’s heart is in the right place, and he has accomplished a great deal, despite what ignorant people say, ( would you read his record before opening your mouth?). He is young though, and green, and so niave he believes all conflicts can be solved by negotiation. I love him for this and believe communicating is the strategy to be tried first – IN EVERY SITUATION. Then, I want him to stand up, say what is moral, take a stand, and veto everything else. CK

  6. Jon Miller

    June 6, 2010 - 9:34 am

    Hi Chris
    Eisenhower may have simply been observing the same sentiment as the French expression from 100 years earlier, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”.

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.