LeadershipLeanSix Sigma

Was Steve Jobs a Lean Thinker?

By Ron Pereira Updated on July 29th, 2013

Lean & Six Sigma Innovation

Can Continuous Improvement methodologies such as Lean & Six Sigma help companies innovate?

Or, as some argue, does practicing continuous improvement actually stifle innovation?

I’d argue authentic continuous improvement can most definitely help companies innovate… the key to this statement is “authentic” continuous improvement.

Kill Lean & Six Sigma?

I recently read a Forbes article written by a gentleman named Ron Ashkenas titled, “Why Continuous Improvement May Need To Be Discontinued.”

Initially, I figured this was going to be another tired article rambling on about how lean and six sigma are so 1980s… and how the answer to all your problems is to hire Mr. Ashkenas or follow his new methodology.

To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised. You see, while I don’t agree with everything Mr. Ashkenas says he does make some good points.

For example, I definitely agree with his point that we should question whether processes should be improved, eliminated, or disrupted.

But, here’s the thing I’m not sure Mr. Askenas understands… determining whether processes should be improved, eliminated, or disrupted is at the very heart of what authentic continuous improvement is all about!

If something isn’t value added it should be eliminated.  Of course, this is easier said than done… but it’s nothing new.

What Problem Are We Trying to Solve?

Now, to be fair, as I’ve written before, we lean and six sigma practitioners can become enamored with our “tools” if we’re not careful. This isn’t good.

But, I’d argue, becoming lost inside Minitab or spending hours trying to make that Value Stream Map look just a tad bit prettier isn’t authentic continuous improvement at all.

Instead, authentic continuous improvement practitioners are obsessed with two questions.

1. What problem are we trying to solve?
2. How can I add more value to my customers (current & future)

The tools of lean and six sigma most definitely help with question #1. In other words, when we identify problems we can, and should, fix them immediately using the best tool available.

And, I’d also argue, many of the tenets of continuous improvement such as genchi genbutsu, or go and see with your own eyes at the place the work is done, will help with question #2.

Was Steve Jobs a Lean Thinker?

You see, while Steve Jobs didn’t technically use lean or six sigma to bring the world the iPod… I’d argue he was constantly focused on solving problems and adding value to his customers (often before they even knew they ‘wanted’ it).

I suppose it’s possible that Steve Jobs understood these two aspects of authentic continuous improvement better than most… of course he could have used some help on the whole respect for people pillar of continuous improvement!

So, yes, I believe both the tools and tenets of continuous improvement can most definitely enable companies to improve and innovate. You don’t have to choose!

Do You Agree?

Do you agree? Do you believe authentic continuous can help companies innovate so long as they focus on solving the right problems and adding value to their customers?

Or, do you think continuous improvement and innovation are two totally different animals that simply can’t co-exist?

  1. Todd Drake

    July 29, 2013 - 8:37 am

    I recently watched a Netflix documentary on Steve Jobs and tend to agree he was constantly focused on simplification and adding value to the world. He was a total ass though and I wonder how much more he could have accomplished had he not been such a tyrant!

    • Ron Pereira

      July 29, 2013 - 8:50 am

      Thanks for the comment, Todd. I also watched the documentary which is probably the reason I used him as the example (see… Jobs is still creating innovation).

      I find the whole respect for people side of CI intriguing. I’ve heard Ohno and Shingo were both very, very tough to work with… not sure how they compared to Jobs but perhaps we all need to be moved outside our “happy place” from time to time in order to make things happen.

  2. Jørgen Winther

    July 29, 2013 - 9:06 am

    Great post! And yes, I believe 🙂

    What I believe is that innovation always took place in small steps, gradually improving something into something better. Inspiration was given (or taken) from parallel activities and sometimes cross-inspiration took place where someone decided to see if something could be used in a different area than usual. The latter being very common in the pharmaceutical industry.

    Continous improvement is absolutely nothing new. It has just been put on hold in some companies, while they tried to make standardization and mass production the way forward. The immediately logical though when you are going to mass produce is that it will be easier to do that if the product doesn’t change too often. And when it changes, you then want all the accumulated ideas to become part of that change, because new machines and processes etc. are expensive – better not buy and make them too often.

    As for Apple’s products they are definitely being continously improved – to me, who do not have many of them – it looks like if each new iPhone version has only very few changes from the previous one. So what Apple is doing is not any different from what any detergent manufacturer has always done: whenever the sales of a product is beginning to deteriorate a new version is being launched. and this goes on until the product has done its time in the primary market, after which it will be relaunched as a secondary market “classic” edition along with something completely new (or with a new name) being marketed as the primary market product.

    I wonder what exactly Steve Jobs did, but things went well for the company when he was around – and not so well when the Pepsi guy were there. But it could have a connection with the general market conditions – a unique design style has better opportunities for success in a tired market full of clones, which was exactly the the situation for the PC market when Jobs came back to Apple.

    But CI is nothing new, as I said. And it would be strange to claim that it doesn’t work, since most of the things – and ideas – we have around us have been developed this way.

  3. Bob Wallner

    July 29, 2013 - 9:10 am

    I listened to the Walter Isaacson unabridged Steven Jobs Biography. He definitely thought progressively but I would not call him a “Lean Thinker”. One of the main elements in the lean house is respect for people – Jobs definitely lacked in this arena. His need for full and total control didn’t allow his subordinates to work to their full abilities or creativity. From my reading of Ohno and Shingo people should be challenged but appreciated while processes should be scrutinized. I respect Jobs, but unfortunately I don’t think I would have ever been able to work for him.

  4. Rick Foreman

    July 29, 2013 - 12:45 pm

    I can’t speak for Jobs. Yet, I watched with curiousity and excitement the other day as two team members worked on reducing a 4 pc sheet metal assembly fab into 1 piece without a lot of manual drilling or fabricating. In my mind they were being very innovative, while questioning the process. Based upon this perspective, continuous improvement thinking, can definitely contribute towards the organizational culture to drive innovation.

  5. Mohammad Ajlouni

    July 29, 2013 - 1:58 pm

    I believe that continuous improvement and innovation are two different things but they should exist together. Both are based on problem solving and adding value to the customer but the approaches are different.

    I divide problem solving into the following three categories:
    1. Problem solving to restore a declining performance to its standard or desired state.
    2. Problem solving to raise the bar of a good performing process.
    3. Problem solving to create something new.

    The first two categories fall into the domain of authentic continuous improvement, while the third category of problem solving fall into the domain of innovation.
    Innovation requires problem solving techniques that are different from those used in continuous improvement and entails different patterns of thinking.

    Continuous improvement is a purely operational issue while innovation is strategic and operational at the same time. Innovation is aligned with the strategic thinking of the organization and usually it is a response to a desired new strategic move or inversely a new strategic move could be a result of innovation. Innovation should not be based on merely technical edges but should be also based on the commercial viability and marketability of the innovation.

    People who work in innovation work in a totally different environment from the people who work in continuous improvement. Normally people who work in innovation have less or even no control from upper management over working hours and they create their own atmosphere for creative work. Whereas people who work in continuous improvement are very disciplined and time oriented.

    I work as the COO of a large group of companies. We have two different models for continuous improvement and innovation. People who work in continuous improvement are the small groups who implement lean through kaizen activities. They are under Operations. People who work in innovations work under the Strategic Department but their work is cross functional with Operations. We train and qualify people who work in continuous improvement differently from those who work in innovation.

  6. John Payson

    July 29, 2013 - 2:28 pm

    Often the same thing that is a “weakness” is also a “strength”.
    Jobs pushed new products ahead before the market existed, in opposition to all normal business decisions (market study, etc.) because the new product was innovation that ‘changed the paradigm’ so such studies would be worthless.
    To do this took a certain stubborness, to push things that basically did not make sense in the business, and do this without being able to fully explain it— ultimately this strength also brings on the weakness of appearance of “arrogance”. But without all of the factors that bring on the perceptions and behaviors of arrogance, the products would never have happened. S

  7. John Payson

    July 29, 2013 - 3:04 pm

    Bill Scherkenback has suggested that nearly all CI effort does not go UP high enough- to business processes.

    Is the need for the most common type of Six Sigma projects caused by a fact that the business process itself (the whole of the system that drives engineering, production, design, etc.) is inadequate?

    Why not apply Six Sigma projects to the business process itself, so that the result is that the organization itself, how it works, is continuously improving which then produces the results we usually look for from a special Six Sigma project.

    Bill Scherkenback asked, when the G.M. product development system was five years from clean sheet to delivery to dealer; and Toyota was less than 18 months, why were Improvement Efforts focused on things like defect rates and yields? The difference was not a result from any one department that could be attacked and improved. It was a result of the entire top down way of doing business.

    Is “going on a diet” a Six Sigma project? When it ends, the question becomes how do you prevent backsliding? Why not instead focus on an entire lifestyle change? Make a decision and act upon it, the result will be permanent improvement and growth. Can the same thinking be applied to an entire organization?

    Who remembers the story, and movie “The Right Stuff”. At a press conference, the question was asked “does anyone have anything else”—- and Sheppard leans forward and adds— “as far as church goes— I attend regularly”. How much potential is left out of reach when the leader says “I am 100% behind the Six Sigma thing”; when basic ways of the organization—- and the outcomes all the way to the customer are the result of those basic ways—- are untouched, in fact are taboo, and unmentionable?

    This is nothing new either. And it doesn’t mean that workers shouldn’t address their own part of their work world either–as all practitioners do. But the issue was brought up about Steve Jobs, the late leader of Apple, and was he a lean thinker. Well, no. That was not what he was about. Steve Jobs was a contrarian, he made decisions that went against all existing data and business decision making, and pushed them through regardless of any opposition– because he just wouldn’t take the time to explain why the innovation he was pushing changed the paradigm.

    The question for Apple in the future is—- now that Jobs is gone, how will Innovations that ‘don’t make sense” (at the time true of — iTunes, iPod, iPhone, iCloud[now so named]) get traction and attention in the company? Jobs took it on himself and shoved these things down the company’s collective throat, but in a “normal” firm they would have died no making business sense, and instead may have been developed by some small start-up someplace and built up into a new Apple competitor (well isn’t this sort of where Google came from, and it will happen again someplace?)

    We don’t know the inner workings of Apple, but indeed, how will they decide what gets resources? Fortunately for Apple, they have tremendous gross earnings and apply them overwhelmingly to innovation projects, most of course don’t “make it” but you have to do that don’t you? With Jobs there he just “pushed” it (apparently). But Lean Thinker? Did he set up a business system that made it so he would not have to push anymore? If so, maybe he was after all.

  8. Alfred

    July 29, 2013 - 4:40 pm

    Lean thinking is all about solving problems and creative thinking. We solve problems in order to make things better, to make simplicity a habit of success in an organisation whether it is in the area of process, product, production of services/goods and a collaborative partnerships with suppliers & customers.

    Steve Jobs may not be seen as using the lean tools to reinvigorate Apple , but the high spirit of continuous improvement in Apple has created a remarkable evident of their superior product design, innovation, supply chain process and customer integration. That is one reason why Apple is so profitable and successful. Steve is a visionary thinker beyond Lean.

  9. Lee Dwyer

    July 29, 2013 - 8:19 pm

    Jobs was a visionary, opportunist an even perhaps a maniacal perfectionist with a bent for improvement. He clearly worked his teams hard but there is no evidence that he even remotely followed or prescribed to any discipline in quality or continuous improvement. He makes a great case study in perspiration versus innovation and perhaps the best combination of both. I am a huge fan of jobs because of his faults and I think he embodies the best case of vision and passion of boring MBA types. If any thing he was a hippy marine hitting the beach hard with a no hold barred approach . However if he got one thing right bit was a visionaries view of where a product was going and that he surrounded himself with other great minds.

  10. Anoob ITIL

    July 30, 2013 - 12:11 pm

    I think the man didn’t give a damn about what the world thought of him, his company or his life. Don’t know about Lean but he was a ‘Different Thinker’- the kind tech world needs to move forward rapidly at the pace he did.

  11. Phanny Schinner

    July 30, 2013 - 12:20 pm

    In his unique way, I believe Steve Jobs was a lean thinker in his pursuit of “perfect innovations.” I read Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson, and I too was not inspired by Jobs’ leadership style. However, Jobs was legendary in his quest to create best-in-class products. His approach toward achieving continuous improvements or perfectionism was excruciatingly intense, particularly for many around him. Jobs’ visions of perfect devices were incorporated into all aspects of creating Apple products. In my opinion, Jobs took CRM (customer relationship management) strategies to exponential levels. While CRM is typically integrated into customer-interaction processes by organizations, Jobs was laser-focused on the creation of each device to achieve the ultimate “user/customer experience” from design inception through product launch. Jobs & Apple makes an excellent case study for companies aspiring to achieve unparalleled success in product innovation, but with a gentler approach toward humanity.

  12. Steve Kwong

    July 31, 2013 - 7:04 am

    Not sure if he was a Lean Thinker from the traditional ‘Lean’ sense. However, he was definitely a problem solver which led to him being a innovator. Here’s one of his quote on problem solving:

    “When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple, you don’t really understand the complexity of the problem. Then you get into the problem, and you see that it’s really complicated, and you come up with all these convoluted solutions. That’s sort of the middle, and that’s where most people stop… But the really great person will keep going and find the key, underlying principle of the problem – and come up with an elegant, really beautiful solution that works.” – Steve Jobs.

  13. Jerry Coover

    July 31, 2013 - 7:21 am

    What little I know of Steve Jobs, does not allow me to determine if he were a lean thinker. How ever he was an innovator, and a great marketer.

  14. Roberto Flores

    July 31, 2013 - 8:24 am

    To me Lean is high common sense solutions to daily problems. So (even not being an expert or fan to Steve Jobs) I know Steve used to innovate using common sense, he was able to learn and apply it to the next loop, so who knows, he may be a lean practitioner as well…

  15. Robert G. Elliott II, Ph.D.

    July 31, 2013 - 9:05 am

    Stylistically? Yes. In the business sense – not at all. I often use Apple as an example of a company that truly lives the value of Innovation and talk about how they run their company as such. In fact – Lean is almost counter culturally to such a creative/innovative organization. That said, in production areas, let it rock. But the heart and soul of Apple is in no way Lean, IMO. Innovation like that takes a lot of waste….But man, when you hit, you hit big.

    And that is also why they are telling what’s his name to go stuff himself about releasing cash. They know dry spells come and they need to be able to weather that storm.

  16. Richard Fedrigon

    July 31, 2013 - 10:44 am

    If Lean is defined as an efficiency methodology, I would not agree that this is a good way to characterize him – but great discussion question!

    In fact, Six Sigma has been identified here as an effectiveness methodology which is a somewhat better characterization; however, the VOC concept certainly doesn’t fit either. Steve Jobs is famous for his preaching that the customer doesn’t know what he wants until you show him/her (so no market studies needed!). He seems to better demonstrate a “build it and they will come” attitude with it supply side benefits which is the mark of an innovator.

    Five Dangerous Lessons to Learn from Steve: Jobs. http://www.forbes.com/sites/chunkamui/2011/10/17/five-dangerous-lessons-to-learn-from-steve-jobs/

  17. Edgar Grajales

    July 31, 2013 - 2:43 pm

    I will say that Steve Jobs was a visionary and innovator; but we cannot say for sure that he was a Lean thinker.

  18. Soumen Bhattacharyya

    August 1, 2013 - 10:38 am

    I would say Steve was a first Thin Thinker and then a Lean thinker.

    His Thin Thinking resulted in innovative Product design ( Light, thin, slick, hi tech and an wow effect products to customers. His philosophy was quite contrary to traditional product design through capturing voice of customers, instead he thought other way that Customer do not know what technology can offer.
    Hence Steve was Thin and Lean thinker both.

    The iStore concept of Apple or the Digital Supply Chain ( as being taught and referred as case study in Operations Management book, it is a breakthrough in Lean, which constitutes reducing vertical and horizontal cycle time of entire supply chain and a concept of virtual store.

  19. Juan Jose Tamayo

    August 2, 2013 - 7:21 am

    From certain perspectives he would definitely be a lean thinker, his attachment to the Zen Buddhism philosophy made him always think to never get attached to anything (he did not even have furniture in his own house during a long period of time) so he was very focused on simplicity which is as all of us know the greatest level of sophistication, devices that can be managed intuitively by the user with no flashy and/or big stuff that is not used. That is definitely lean thinking (“prototypely” speaking).

    On the other hand, the obsession for the final “simple/lean product” cause in most of the cases that the supply chain and the manufacturing processes were too expensive or at least more expensive than others, not fast enough, etc.From that other perspective he was not definitely a lean thinker from the manufacturing standpoint, in my opinion I would say he was a life lean thinker rather than a business lean thinker.

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