Getting the CEO on a Kaizen Team is Like Pulling Teeth

As I was flipping through my copy of the February 2007 issue of Dental Economics today, an interview with two Danaher executives caught my eye. Danaher is known as a leading American company who has quietly and profitably grown through smart acquisitions and the application of kaizen and the Toyota Production System. You can read more about them here, as well as in a recent article in the Superfactory blog.
Danaher is now the number two dental company in the world, according to the article. Bob Joyce head of the Dental Equipment Group in the Americas and Daniel Even, President, Sybron Dental Specialtie spoke with the interviewer about DBS (the Danaher version of TPS):
Dr. Blaes: Why will a company be better as part of Danaher?
Bob Joyce: Probably the most significant advantage of being part of Danaher is the Danaher Business System. […]

What is the DBS?
Bob Joyce: The Danaher Business System, or DBS, is the one thing that is distinctly similar across all our businesses, and we are incredibly passionate about it because it defines our culture and drives our performance. It’s a very powerful system of values and continuous-improvement tools, including a well-honed training model for our associates. DBS is used to guide and measure everyday activities to meet and exceed customer expectations.
Dan Even: Guiding all our efforts is a simple philosophy rooted in four customer-facing priorities: quality, delivery, cost/price, and innovation. Always keeping these priorities in mind, we use DBS to guide what we do, to measure how well we execute, and to create options for doing even better ­- including improving DBS itself!

Talking about kaizen, the Danaher executives describe who you might meet during a kaizen event at Danaher:
Bob Joyce: Central to DBS is “kaizen,” or continuous improvement. Everyone within Danaher, including our leadership team, gets involved in kaizens, our continuous-improvement events. We start by identifying a customer issue and gathering a team to participate in an event that will fix a customer issue in less than a week. It’s not uncommon to see Larry Culp, our CEO and President, in the middle of a kaizen, moving equipment around the factory floor. As I said, we are incredibly passionate about DBS because of the rapid impact it can have on customer satisfaction and our business performance.
It’s not uncommon to see the CEO in the middle of a kaizen… You might want to print out those words and glue them to your CEO’s door, if your experience with getting the CEO on a kaizen team has been anything like ours. Getting the CEO on a kaizen team is like pulling teeth.
The most common reason given is that CEOs are too busy to spend three to five days on a kaizen team making huge improvements to their core business processes. To that I say that if you do enough kaizen events and kaizen education, the CEO’s job will get easier, all by itself.
In the few cases when the kaizen event was planned around the CEO’s schedule, allowing him to be on the kaizen team, amazing things happened. All of those executives, who were always so busy to attend kaizent team review meetings or visit the gemba at the end of the week to see the gains the team members had made, somehow got all of their work done and were able to attend when the CEO was there…
Another reason given is that people will be intimidated by the CEO and team members will clam up and not give their input. If your supreme leader lacks the people skills and communication skills to such a degree that you can’t trust him not to disturb the harmony of a cross-functional team for a week, there’s a training and development opportunity for you. Of course in some cultures this may be a barrier that is too high to overcome in the short term.
“Our CEO already fully supports kaizen” is another reason given, assuming that support is the only important role a CEO in a cultural transformation. CEOs also need to develop the skill to do kaizen, which arises from a a set of values and guiding principles, learned by doing. This excuse rings particularly hollow when coming from a corporate Lean VP whose primary function is to report to the CEO how the sites are doing with Lean, so that the CEO does not have to go to gemba to check for herself.
And my favorite CEO excuse is that “We have people to do kaizen” as if by hiring industrial engineers, black belts and certified improvement professionals, you somehow make up for the lack of total employee involvement, from the top down.
Why shouldn’t it be like pulling teeth? Bad teeth, like bad habits, need to be removed and replaced with better ones. Then you need to brush every day so you don’t need to pull the other ones. It’s just good hygiene.
The CEO can’t and shouldn’t be on every kaizen event. Nobody should. Not every kaizen should be an event. But if removing waste, or more importantly if removing obstacles to removing waste does not rank in the top five things to do for your CEO, you may find yourself being acquired and assimilated into a company whose CEO has pulled those teeth already.