Apple, the anti-lean company?

Posted on 7 Oct 2011 by The Manufacturer

Roberto Priolo on the death of Steve Jobs and how Apple is perceived

The news of the week has been, without a doubt, the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. An emotional wave has swiped the world following the announcement, with people gathering around Apple stores around the planet to pay their respects to the man who has, in many respects, changed our lives.

A picture I saw on the paper showed people lighting up little candles and placing them on the ground, recreating the shape of the technology company’s logo. Flowers and signs were placed by the windows of the stores. This kind of display of grief and affection can only mean one thing: Jobs has touched our lives, bringing dramatic change to the way we experience technology.

As a proud owner of a number of Apple devices, I can certainly understand those people who took the time to head to Regents Street or the Fifth Avenue or any other store location worldwide. Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have believed anybody telling us smartphones would have been able to do what they do today. Jobs gave us easy, fun and quick access to music, videos, information, services and games. He was the first one to do so, and arguably the person who has best interpreted the Voice of the Customer.

This morning I read an article published by Wired a few years ago, describing Apple as an anti-lean company, where a secretive, dictatorial CEO concentrates all the power in his hands. Jobs is described as a master engineer who does not know what people empowerment and involvement is: it has been said that it is forbidden for Apple employees to discuss their work at home. His charisma, however, managed to keep staffers focused on the task at hand in a constant bid to make him happy. This may all be true (although I doubt these levels of success can be achieved without a committed, well-treated workforce), but there is one thing that few could argue: Steve Jobs knew what we wanted, before we wanted it.

There are some seriously well-thought marketing strategies behind products like the iPhone or the iPad, and these may be an important part of the company’s success. However, Apple has created innovative, smart and appealing products, consistently keeping what customers value at the core of its processes. Its manufacturing processes certainly aren’t lean, and its supply chain isn’t either (most production occurs in far-away China), but when it comes to adding value for the customer nobody beats Apple.

Many are wondering what will be of the Cupertino-based company now that its visionary co-founder and former CEO has died. The leadership of Tim Cook will certainly bring change about, if anything because it will see a new man leading one of the world’s most successful enterprises. Jobs was something of a star entrepreneur, a down to earth, direct person people loved. His vision was always at the centre of Apple’s offering, and the things he said were inspiring on many levels. Facebook and Twitter yesterday were inundated with his quotations, of which people’s favourite one seems to be “Stay hungry, stay foolish”, which Jobs pronounced during a speech he delivered at Stanford University.

Having a clear vision, focusing on a single successful idea and never forgetting what the customer values are some of core principles of lean thinking. Jobs embodied all those ideas, and there is little doubt Apple has the potential to retain its role as one of the world’s most successful technology companies, provided its new leadership doesn’t lose its way and keeps Jobs’ vision at the heart of its mission. It may not be described as a lean company, but Apple certainly epitomises some of the main lean principles. It certainly did under Jobs.

As the Wired article stated, Steve Jobs proved that “it’s OK to be an xxxhole”, because the end of the day, his methods worked. Do you need proof? In the second quarter of 2011 Apple sold 20 million iPhones and more than nine million iPads.