Conventional Wisdom?

I have been lucky enough to witness (and in some cases be a part of) several overturns of conventional wisdom.  I remember hearing how quality “costs money” and “we can’t afford higher quality.”  Now, it’s common to think about quality and value perception strategically.

I remember working with factory schedulers where they were driven by measures, such as utilization % and unit cost allocations, to build massive amounts of inventory (some of the consequences of which were quality problems!).  Now, it’s common to use Just-In-Time and Theory of Constraints concepts in production planning.

Our US auto industry is emblematic for this movement.  In the early and mid ‘80s I was working with several automotive companies.  At this point, the domestic industry still had a dominant market share (in the US), but companies such as Toyota, Nissan, and Honda had made significant gains in share.  Remarkably, those Japanese firms weren’t all that secretive in what they were doing.  Yet, I saw opportunities to apply these techniques (many of which did not have Japanese origins) repeatedly be ignored by US firms.   Now, many of the “heresies” of the past are integrated into the standard practice.

What could account for this strategic myopia?  Lots of factors — perhaps years of being big and successful.   On the other hand, these people were NOT stupid (of course, there are always exceptions — on all sides).  Many of the talented were among the most adamant against the new ideas.   I wish I could say that I was very talented AND saw the new “light.”  In fact, I was too naive and untrained.  For me, the “new” did not have to displace the “old.”

In the beginner’s mind there are endless possibilities, in the expert’s there are few.
— Shunryu Suzuki – Zen master

As a consultant and project manager I’ve come to realize that the value my clients and teams receive is often due less to knowing things (but please don’t tell them), and more to being able to “see” new things — and a need to ask questions.

Over the next week, let’s explore some of the ways we, as project leaders, are are encountering conventional wisdom that need overturning (or at least some improved interpretation!) and how we do it.



5 thoughts on “Conventional Wisdom?”

  1. User Avatar

    I just love the spirit of your blog, Alan! Thanks for your post. My whole career has been one of turning conventional wisdom on its ear. I even collect quotes from experts who say something is “impossible” because I’ve noticed that such things tend to happen within a decade of the expert (Someone who — USED to spurt?!) saying it. Here’s one of my favorites: «With over fifteen types of foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big share of the market for itself.» – Business Week, August 2, 1968 It comes from “Top 87 Bad Predictions About the Future”. The problem with conventional wisdom is it is based on the past. That’s like driving with your eyes glued to the rearview mirror! Sure to wind up in a ditch.

  2. Hi Alan;

    I read your post with interest and a smile. Working at GM in the early 80’s there was only the mindset of worker utilization and cost per piece. It was a proof of concept in a pilot implemetation of OPT that changed my view of the definition of efficiency (the software was terrible, but the concepts of quality, constraints and scheduling a true pardigm shift).

    Bill Knudsen

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      Hi Bill,

      Wow, you were there! I was one of the crew doing OPT (a software implementation of Dr. Eli Goldratt’s theory) at GM. I did some work at various plants including Saginaw Steering Gear and the Central Foundry.

      Totally agree with you on the software and on the start of a paradigm shift.

      We could probably swap some stories!


      1. Hi Alan;

        I suspect we must have worked in the same group. I did a pilot of OPT at the Electro-Motive Div of GM and after joining EDS worked on the Synchronous Mfg project for Central Foundry. I was at the Messina NY facility piloting (somewhat) OPT. OPT never went into production at the Messina facility.

        I do not rememebr the names of the folks I worked with at EDS but I remember having to go to Troy, MI once a month. The building in Troy was at I-75 and 16 Mile Rd (Big Beaver).

        Is it possible we were in the same group?

        Bill Knudsen

        1. User Avatar

          I was with Creative Output (the OPT people). I remember the various levels of outrage with the new EDS rules (e.g. facial hair) that some of my GM colleagues expressed during the transition. Did you go through that phase?

          We might have crossed paths at Central Foundry. Did you ever go to the Mexican restaurant in downtown Saginaw?

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