The Wall Street Journal article titled Five Lessons From the Banana Man introduces us to the practical business wisdom of Samuel Zemurray, the former head of the United Fruit Company. The article is a good reminder that so-called Lean principles originate wherever there is a person working within constraints to build an enterprise. Looking beyond the article at the United Fruit story, we are also reminded that as enterprises succeed and grow, respect for people can be overshadowed by the profit motive.
Convert waste into value. Samuel Zemurray built his first fortune by seeing an opportunity in the ripe bananas that the big fruit traders would throw away. He looked past conventional thinking and found a way to convert a wasted resource into profit.
Genchi genbutsu, or go see for yourself. When Sam decided to become a banana grower, he moved to the jungle in Honduras.
“He planted stems, walked the fields and loaded banana boats. He believed that this was his great advantage over the executives of United Fruit, the market-leading behemoth that he battled for over a decade.”
While his competitor was run from an office in Boston, he lived and worked at the gemba, the front lines of his banana operation (the gembanana).
Solve the problem simply, at the source. When Sam Zemurray was competing with United Fruit to purchase the same piece of land, the two competing buyers faced a common problem; the land had two separate legal owners.
“While U.F. hired lawyers and commissioned studies, trying to determine the legal property holder, Zemurray simply purchased the land twice, once from each owner.”
The solution is quick and brilliantly simple, devised not by high-priced lawyers or theoreticians but by someone on the ground who can get the facts of the situation and make a practical decision. We should go see to get the facts because this often helps us find the simplest solution.
When in doubt, do something! or Be visible on the front lines. When Sam Zemurray took over United Fruit in 1932 the company was in trouble, so he went on a tour of the Latin American operation.
“[…] meeting workers in the field and asking for their ideas. The perception of activity, he explained, is just as important as the nature of that activity. The boys in the fields need to know that there is a person in charge. If they think you know what you’re doing, they’ll follow you anywhere.”
The lesson here seems to be less “do something!” and more “let people see that you are doing something”. This is really just building on top of the theme of “go to gemba”. Going to the front lines and doing nothing more than listening and building trust can be the critical difference between good and bad leadership in a time of crisis.
The article summarizes Sam Zemurray’s banana leadership philosophy as:
“Power comes from knowledge, information and experience, which grow from the ground like a banana stem. If you lose touch with that, you’re ripe for the taking.”
There is power and there is responsibility. To complete the story of Sam Zemurray and United Fruit, they were involved in what we would today call “regime change” in Honduras and Guatemala, ostensibly to maintain their business interests in these countries. One can’t help but wonder whether in his final years as the head of United Fruit Sam spent adequate time on the gemba, with a spirit of respect for humanity, considering the consequences of catalyzing a civil war in Guatemala.