Apple, MobileME, and Ford-Talk

I looked online for a definition of the phrase “Ford-Talk,” so maybe it was a term that was coined internally within the last organization I worked for, or the broader Toyota Management System community.

It refers to a culture where managers who are called into a room by their boss give positive assessments of how their areas are doing. This was ascribed to an American carmaker, but I think it could apply to many American companies, relative to their Japanese analogues, where it is expected that failures are pointed out, so they can be fixed. As it is said, an assembly line that is reported as being 100% functional is one that is not functional because it is not finding mistakes and fixing them.

I thought of Ford-Talk when I read This article, which talks about the failure of managers to tell the CEO that things weren't ready. and this article, which dissects the CEO’s memo about the failures to staff and does a nice job of bringing Steve Jobs’ talents in working with the public to light.

However, if articles like this one alluding to the inner workings of the company (“The Economist: Jobs’s Job”) are to be believed I think there may be a different perspective than, “the managers did not report that there were problems and luckily Steve owned the problem publicly so the company could regroup and succeed.”

What I have learned is even the most innovative environments may operate with a command-and-control approach, not by purpose, but by neglect. When that happens, the failure may be not to listen, rather than not to speak.

Did that happen here? I don’t know. The comment about managers failing to tell the boss something caught my eye as a Toyota Management System/LEAN aficionado and made me wonder if there was more to learn.

I am interested in stories like this because I’ve been working in healthcare to improve the listening. When we go from telling people, “You won’t hear anything from us if everything is normal (the ultimate Ford-Talk),” to listening to the question, “I just got my lab report and I have a question about this specific number” we’re more likely to pick up mistakes. It’s better to be embarrassed and change course quickly than wait in these individual cases, and when there is a bigger problem to ask “why?” the problem happened, five times. There may be more than a simple answer…..

Ted Eytan, MD