Was Ayn Rand a lean thinker?
One of the most important principles in lean is respect for people. It is often glossed over as a nicety, given less rigor than things like just-in-time, and often misunderstood as abdication and softness. But respect for people is about leveraging the full talents of an individual and providing individuals with the opportunity to be their best.
When reading a Newsweek review of Ayn Rand by Mark Sanford (yes, the guy from South Carolina who was considered exposed his affair after going AWOL), I got to thinking what Ayn Rand would have to say about lean as a way to run an organization. For those not familiar with Rand, she is the author of The Fountainhead (Centennial Edition Hardcover) and Atlas Shrugged, and creator of the philosophy of objectivism. Many people misunderstand Rand as anti-labor and only in favor of managers and capitalists. There is no question she had some flaws, including her own inability to apply objectivism to her own life and circle of engagement. But the underlying thoughts, when applied pragmatically, have had a huge influence on people. In a survey of US CEOs, Atlas Shrugged was the second most-read book behind the Bible. My understanding was that she was in favor of anyone doing their job to the true best of their ability. There are two points that come from Rand that I believe help respect for people and lean thinking quite well.
Appeal to the intrinsic motivation to contribute.
So many organizations try to manipulate their employees to death, using everything from trickery to financial incentives. I’m by no means against those methods, but in over-focusing on them, organizations fail to really appeal to people’s intrinsic motivations to contribute and perform. No one wants to go home at the end of the day feeling like their day was a waste. Here’s what Sanford had to add:
What strikes me as still relevant is its central insightâ€”that it isn’t “collective action” that makes this nation prosperous and secure; it’s the initiative and creativity of the individual. The novel’s “second-handers,” as Rand called themâ€”the opportunistic Peter Keating, who appropriates Roark’s architectural talent for his own purposes, and Ellsworth Toohey, the journalist who doesn’t know what to write until he knows what people want to hearâ€”symbolize a mindset that’s sadly familiar today.
Fujio Cho who ran Toyota for many years felt a similar way, stating “people worldwide share one common trait: they want to be given the opportunity to make a valuable contribution.” I believe people’s contribution doesn’t always have to be measured by the magnitude, but instead by how willing they are to step up and apply their trade and their knowledge to the best of their abilities. Toyota seeks those people out. And they give them every opportunity. Yes, they operate within a structure, but that structure is designed to that contributions can be more objectively evaluated and it is easier to experiment and improve.
A lean thinking organization thinks of their employees from one end to the other as resources to be unleashed for improvement. But to do so, a lean leader will invest their own time and effort into developing those talents, aligning them, and giving them both skills and systems to enable improvement. Then employees aren’t fighting the system, they are contributing to it with the best of their abilities.
You know what’s good for me better than I?
While Ayn Rand’s focus often centers on the role of government, the thought applies to any organization. How do you sit there and tell me how to live my life, what decisions to make, how to run my business, and so on from your chair many miles away without really understanding my situation or capabilities to make my own decisions. Dwight Eisenhower had one of my favorite quotes: “It is easy being a farmer when your plow is a pencil and the cornfield is a thousand miles away.” Sanford expressed his concern this way:
Why? I think at a fundamental level many people recognize Rand’s essential truthâ€”government doesn’t know best. Those in power in Washingtonâ€”or indeed in Columbia, S.C.â€”often lead themselves to believe that our prosperity depends on their wisdom. It doesn’t. The prosperity and opportunity we enjoy comes ultimately from the creative energies of the country’s businessmen, entrepreneurs, investors, marketers, and inventors. The longer it takes this country to reawaken to this reality, the worse weâ€”and in turn, our children’s standard of livingâ€”will be.
Whatever you think the role of government should be, I’m asking you to think about this in respect to lean thinking organizations. Does a manager who sees a job once in a while know best about someone else’s work than they do? Even if they sometimes do, establishing a system that assumes this is dangerous. This is why I hate suggestion systems, and I wrote about it in my column a while back. Suggestions are for, by definition, other people. You are telling other people how to apply their knowledge better. Instead I prefer idea programs. Help people improve their own work. Help them develop and apply their own knowledge. Building an organization system where people are told how to do their job is very different from one where they are taught how to do their job, and then given the opportunity to contribute to improving it.
No one in your organization has a complete view of current reality. They only get to experience a partial view based on their experiences. Our job is to take those partial views and put them together as a more complete view. This acknowledges that there is no one master who has all the knowledge, because that’s just not true. Don’t use “that’s not what I would have done” as a hammer on people, but instead use those moments as opportunities to teach and develop knowledge.
For those who have read Ayn Rand, what do you think? Do you think she was lean thinker? What would she do as a manager?
I have written on the concept of respect for people before, so you might find these blog posts interesting:
- Are you stupid or something?
- Jason Fried is a lean thinker
- Developing your lean education plan
- Innovation and rewarding learning
Also, if you are interested in learning more about Ayn Rand, here are a couple of books both published this year that might be interesting to check out: