Book Review: Improvement by Bob Emiliani

Improvement: A Hundred-Year Plan for Progressive Management (Cubic LLC, 2020)

By Ken Eakin

From the title of Emiliani’s recent book[1], you might expect a specific, detailed blueprint for how to implement a better, more progressive style of business management from now until 2121.  You might imagine project milestones stylishly illustrated in colourful Gantt charts, telling you precisely what to do and by when. But, of course, everybody knows any 100-year plan for the future would be absurdly impractical.  We often have a lot of uncertainty about what next week will hold, never mind what the next century might have in store for us and our descendants.  Nobody can predict the future with any accuracy, and to pretend otherwise is delusional arrogance.  What we need, instead of a detailed plan, is a mindset that allows us to face our uncertain future with confidence, tackle the right problems in the right way, improve upon the past, and make progress, so that our next 100 years, as a society, will be better than the last.

Improvement is not a prognostication; nor is it a project roadmap for the future. It’s Emiliani’s argument for adopting a mindset that promotes the advancement of business management practice. Not doing so, he warns us, means holding on to the dysfunctional traditions so deeply embedded in the present-day institution of management.  Adherence to the status quo inhibits progress for business and, by extension, society and humanity. As an antidote, he spends much of the book urging us to learn from– and build upon– both the mistakes and successes of past movements to improve the realm of management. 

Emiliani, a professor in the School of Engineering, Science, and Technology at Central Connecticut State University, is known most for his research, teaching and publications about Lean Management.  Interestingly, in this work he’s shifted from using the specific term “Lean” to the broader term “progressive management” in order to take a longer view of Lean’s historical lineage[2],[3]. Lean, as a business term, has been around for only a little over 30 years.  But what came before it?  What gave birth to it?  What can we learn from the past?  These questions cause Emiliani to look a hundred years backwards to unravel a historical thread that ties Lean to a much longer tradition of progressive management practice that dates back to at least the 1890s.

Progressive management started with Frederick Winslow Taylor’s system of Scientific Management in the late 19th Century.  Many today interpret Taylor’s system as an overly mechanistic attempt to squeeze productivity out of workers for the sole benefit of owners—the exact opposite of Lean values.  But Emiliani argues that Scientific Management is misunderstood. Viewed in its proper historical context, it is an attempt to improve business for all stakeholders, including workers. Citing the original writings of Taylor and his contemporaries, Emiliani points out how Taylor called for a change in mindset– a “great mental revolution” in Taylor’s words– on the part of both management and laborers.  Such a revolution was needed in order to understand how Scientific Management could benefit both parties and create more harmonious cooperation between the two.

Scientific Management, in this view, was the Lean Management of its day.  It had some notable successes, but its proponents also made some mistakes in the way it was promoted and disseminated.  By the time of Taylor’s death in 1915, it had failed to obtain widespread influence in American business practice.  Classical management, the target of Emiliani’s sharp criticism in his three publications prior to Improvement, prevailed over Scientific Management.  

While most of 20th century American business ignored Scientific Management, Taiichi Ohno and the Toyota Motor Company sought to build upon the legacy of Scientific Management and the field of industrial engineering in post-WWII Japan.  Ohno and his colleagues borrowed ideas from America, added in their own, and experimented their way, over the course of 30 years, towards establishing what is now the celebrated Toyota Production System (TPS).  TPS turned a small Japanese auto producer into what it is today: one of the world’s largest and most successful industrial enterprises.  

By the 1980’s nearly everyone in American business was anxiously wondering what the Japanese were doing that they weren’t.  Emulating TPS was seen as the quick ticket to success.  The term “lean” was coined in 1988 as the result of an academic study of the Japanese auto industry[4], and of Toyota’s system in particular.  Lean has since evolved, as many know, over the last 30 years to come to signify a more generic version of TPS thinking and practice that can be applied to a wider variety of companies and business situations.  But, like Scientific Management 100 years earlier, Lean Management has not yet managed to gain widespread adoption amongst the mainstream business community.  Emiliani enumerates the key mistakes that he feels the promoters of Lean Management have made and draws parallels to the trajectory of Scientific Management, lest we repeat them.

While the connected history of Scientific Management, Toyota, and Lean is fascinating in its own right, Emiliani uses this historical narrative as a platform from which to advocate for better management thinking.   People’s intellectual and creative capacities are largely quashed by the existing institutions of education and business. Consequently, managers underestimate how much they and their people can truly accomplish.  As a countermeasure, Emiliani draws on his own experience with the notoriously serious-minded Shingijutsu consultants, the disciples of Taiichi Ohno and TPS. He writes in short, aphoristic passages on key themes such as people, process, equipment, space, time, information and money.  These are meant to challenge the reader into thinking differently and adopting an “improvement mindset”.

The book ends in a remarkably humanistic and upbeat tone, especially given that Emiliani, while one of the most incisive management thinkers alive today, is not known for sugar-coating his criticism of Lean and business alike.  But in Improvement, he makes it quite clear—more so than in his other works since 2018– that he is advocating for leaders to create a more progressive management culture for a noble purpose.  He wants people, especially younger generations, to feel confident in their creative, imaginative and intellectual abilities to improve. Only this improvement mindset—not more technology; not more money– will help the world make real progress.

[1] Emiliani is such a prolific writer that he publishes new books far faster than I can read and review them.  He’s since released a new title Wheel of Fortune (Cubic LLC, 2021).

[2] Not only does the term “Progressive management” allow for a longer view, it also accommodates a wider array of beliefs and practices than Lean, such Total Quality Management, Six Sigma, Business Process Reengineering, Agile/Scrum, etc.  All of these practices, like Lean, require, explicitly or implicitly, progressive management to exist in the organizations in which they are deployed if they are to be successfully sustained over time.

[3] Emiliani does not intend for “progressive” to take on a political meaning, where the term is often used synonymously with “liberal”. In fact, the author deliberately points out that progressive management has appealed to some conservative-minded business leaders. 

[4] It was coined in an academic paper by John Krafcik in 1988:

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