The Cheerful Delusion of the Kaizen Mind

By Jon Miller Published on December 16th, 2005

The December 16, 2005 USA Today article titled Optimism Puts Rose-colored Tint in Glasses of Top Execs is an interesting study on strength and weakness of top executives, particularly their sometimes delusional optimism.
The main points of the article are that the most effective leaders have in common their ability to:
– See the big picture with limited information
– Attract followers through a combination of caring and charisma
– Be optimistic, even against prevailing facts
A striking tendency towards optimism was found in a variety of recent surveys and is illustrated with famous and infamous American executives in the news. An interesting insight is “When CEOs are right, they know they are right. The problem is, when they are wrong, they know they are right.
Why is this? Maybe it’s because of a sense of security their golden parachutes and massive executive compensations provide. They are optimistic because even if their company fails, they have millions in the bank. The vast majority of workers do not.
Delusional or not, optimism is an important characteristic for both corporate executives as well as leaders of kaizen and Lean transformation. Henry Ford summed it up best nearly a century ago, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
In defense of big egos, the article states “A lot has been written in management literature about how true leadership is humble, not egotistical” and cites the lack of ethics of executives at Tyco, Enron, etc. for their failures, rather than their lack of humility.
I disagree, and maintain that you don’t need a big ego to succeed. Part of humility is a proper respect for people, which precludes such egregious lapses in ethics. Humility simply means you are open to admitting that you might not have all of the answers, and that you are secure enough to accept the possibility of being wrong occasionally.
The article made me think about the parallel to leadership on a much smaller scale, the workplace team leader or a kaizen team leader. The characteristics that make them effective are remarkably similar. Optimistic leaders can see a better future. Kaizen team leaders and facilitators of rapid improvement can see a better future because amongst all of that waste they see tremendous opportunity. They know how to apply Lean tools to make things better.
While corporate executives can be skewed towards the delusional because they are disconnected from the realities of the gemba, and because their reports tend to tell them what they want to hear. A kaizen team leader with an understanding of genchi gembutsu and the value of cross-functional team input can avoid these pitfalls while remaining highly optimistic.

  1. Eric H

    December 16, 2005 - 7:28 pm

    Kathleen loaned me this great book, Decision Traps by Edward Russo and Paul Schoemaker. In one section, they point out that an executive has to be careful not to blur the distinction in his/her own mind between what he wants the organization to do, and what he needs to know. It is possible that he needs to sell the program to his troops while his fact checkers are still researching, and it’s possible that they may need to change course at some point. I’m not explaining this at all well, but they do point out that it is difficult but necessary to hold different frames of mind, which seems to be the problem you have described above. The book goes on to explain how to avoid the all-too-common problem of knowing you are right even when you are wrong (this is especially true in hindsight, where everyone remembers how correct they were). I haven’t grokked it fully, but it was good information.

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