Tips for Lean Managers

Spending Money to Hinder Leadership

By Jon Miller Published on July 7th, 2006

I recently went to Japan with a group of directors from an aerospace company to see Toyota and other leaders of Lean. One of the results of the trip was that the director or engineering really saw the waste walls cause in the office and he decided to eliminate offices for his managers, including himself.
They were all going to sit in an open room so as to foster their communication. As predicted, there were howls of protest from some of those who thought that their reward for 20 years of loyal service was an office with solid walls.
They asked me my opinion and I said, “A great number of you are awesome leaders who really have a lot of good to give the company. The only problem is that if you’re stuck in an office, the great aura oozing out of you is wasted. I think it’s a wonderful thing that you’re going to an open office, and I know this is cutting edge stuff in your industry”. After I said this, I thought about my statement a bit more and was struck by the irony of it.
In most companies in North America, the more valuable a person becomes in a company, the more things are put in place to limit the amount of influence they can have. For instance, when a person newly joins a company they are out working in the open. They are talking to their colleagues, participating in groups and are involved in the daily operations.
If, they happen to be promoted, they then get to go into a small cubicle. There they may get a computer which they will spend a lot of time on it doing their e-mail. If they get promoted again, they’ll get even higher walls – high enough so that they can’t see the operation and neither can the people doing the operations see them.
Let’s say they manage to get promoted even under these uphill circumstances, and now they get a solid wall office. Unfortunately, there’s no door so someone can occasionally still walk in but they are largely removed from the day to day contact with the people around them.
One more promotion, and, hooray, this time they get a door! The company has now quite isolated them from the other employees and their ability to influence people has been diminished quite a bit at this point. OK… one more promotion, and this time they get a secretary to keep the riff raff out of their office. At this point in time this person is so far removed from the daily work that most of their decisions are either based on bad information or late information. As a result they’ll make their presence most felt through constantly changing people’s priorities and forcing their underlings to provide them with reports in PowerPoint.
If this isn’t bad enough, ask yourself who gets the most training dollars spent on them? The person who has the least influence in the company of course!

  1. Mark Graban

    July 8, 2006 - 8:40 am

    Do you think it’s a least a step in the right direction that, for example, at Intel the CEO has a cubicle instead of an office? I don’t know how easy it is to just “drop in” though.
    When I worked at a startup, you just walked into the President’s office. It’s easier to have that kind of interaction when it’s just 30 people.
    Can you imagine the chaos of Rick Wagoner didn’t have that “protection”? I know it isolates him, but the alternative is that he would have people at his door constantly right?

  2. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    July 11, 2006 - 7:56 am

    Excellent point. At the point where you get an assistant, their sole job is to run interference between yourself and the company. At one company where we were doing a cultural assessment, we found that the executive assistants were essentially driving the strategy of the company. They determined, at their discretion, who and what topics got on the executives schedule. This greatly influenced the topics they could decide and influence, and it actually drove the company’s strategy. Perhaps they should have paid the assistants better with such an awesome responsibility.

  3. Jon Miller

    July 18, 2006 - 6:56 pm

    I don’t think it’s a step in the right direction to give the CEO a cubicle Mark. It’s a step sideways. I’m really not fond of cubicles. There’s nothing good about them.
    Why is the CEO in the office anyway? Does she or he add value there? Why not go to gemba? Why not go talk to customers? Why not see how their product is used? Why not to on a muda walk and audit compliance to TPS?
    If the CEO didn’t have an office not everyone would go straight to the CEO’s door. There’s a chain of command. If there was a problem solving culture to go to your supervisor, stop and fix, it would rarely need to go to the next level of management.
    At GM if all offices were open, many problems would be exposed and solved within groups under a particular manager. The problems would be caught sooner and be less complex, requiring less boardroom problem solving.

  4. Mike Harrington

    September 5, 2006 - 11:50 am

    Thank you for your comments. I am trying to implement an “open” office and have met great resistance from the senior management team (primarily due to the cost to knock down walls and put in open space). I have even had one employee leave and he gave the reason if because he couldn’t get his work done in an open office. I would be curions if anyone has ROI information on how much the open office imporves communication and how it can inprove my ROI.

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