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Thirsty Horses and a Call for Meta-Advice

By Jon Miller Updated on April 27th, 2015

thirsty horseSome of the process-related questions leaders ask during their interaction with front line workers include variations on “What is the standard?” and “What is the actual process?” and upon finding a gap “Why is there a gap?” and “What are you doing to close the gap?” These can be part of structured, leader standard work, kata coaching, kamishibai audits or even asked during unstructured and spontaneous gemba walks. I have noted three most common excuses that senior leaders give for their difficulty in dedicating time to go to the gemba and engage people in conversations about process improvement.

1. “I am too busy.” Lies, told first to oneself and then to colleagues. By definition, senior executives have more flexibility in their calendar, more subordinates to whom meetings and/or tasks can be delegated, and more access to resources to move themselves through space at higher speeds, than practically anyone else in the organization. It’s a question of willingness to make their personal visibility on the gemba a priority.

2. “I can’t get caught up in the day to day.” Simply wrong. This misconception is due to an asymmetry in knowledge about the current situation of the business between senior executive and front line worker. The senior executive knows far more about practically all aspects of the business away from almost any gemba that they would visit. The worker on that gemba knows far more about the issues, challenges and opportunities of their direct workplace. The  senior executive often overvalues their own knowledge of the “rest of the business” while undervaluing the gemba, and knowledge thereof. They see time spent on the gemba as “below their pay grade”. They fail to see that people and knowledge from the gemba are an untapped resource in helping to achieve their objectives. Leaders who understand this asymmetry exploit it to their benefit. The gemba is a pure, bubbling brook of business insight just waiting to slake the thirst of executives for innovation and improvement.

Even aware of this asymmetry, there is resistance. This situation reminds me of the Old English homily, “Who can give water to the horse that will not drink of its own accord?” A senior leader may not be interested in following or being constrained by a lean leadership routine, or may be intimidated by the details of processes that leader standard work requires them to audit through open-ended questions. What if, then, the leader skipped the lean routines and structures, instead encouraging the leader simply asking the front line worker for advice? We have the third most common excuse.

3. “It would make me look weak.” Or some variation thereof. This reason is generally more widespread but harder to tease out, as senior executives in this day and age do not rise to their station by admitting fears and being vulnerable. Often it is couched in other, weaker excuses, that yield to “I am scared” after some careful probing. There is a real risk of a leader appearing out of touch by going directly to the gemba and asking for advice, without first connecting with people, understanding the current state of the process and establishing some context for the discussion. This is where the various tools / methods such as leader standard work, the kamishibai process and kata coaching questions can come in handy. The unstructured gemba walk has its place, but most beginners benefit from the safety net that the above-mentioned lean leadership routines provide.

Fear and social threats are not easy things for people to overcome, reassurances that lean routines will make everything okay notwithstanding. The best advice here is, “Don’t be afraid,” and it turns out that science has my back on this one. The Scientific American article titled Asking Advice Makes a Good Impression describes a series of studies and concludes

” […]our recent research suggests that the instinct to avoid seeking advice is wrong. Though extremely common, fears about appearing incompetent by asking for help or information are sorely misplaced.

Not only does asking for advice not make the seeker of advice look weak, ignorant or incompetent, the very opposite is true. The studies cited in the article find

“…being asked for advice increased judgments of the advice seeker’s competence. In this work, we also learned why being asked for guidance has this positive effect: the request flatters the adviser and increases his or her self-confidence. When others ask for our advice, therefore, we think that they were smart to come to us for help!”

The article also points out that asking for advice within a conflict-laden situation such  as a poor job performance review also results in a more rapid and positive resolution. However, it also points out that “The power of advice seeking has limits“, namely that asking advice from someone about a topic for which they have no expertise will not result in a good impression, or that the seeker of advice is smart. For example, the a forklift operator would think, “Why is this VP asking me about the long-term impact on capital-to-income ratios as a result of our supply chain’s shift from build-to-stock to build-to-order?” and wonder “Is he stupid?” or “Is this guy making fun of me?” or even “What is he smoking?” Clearly the advice sought must be about that person’s expertise and experience, made in plain language. Even this so-called limit of seeking advice can be countered long-term by continuously educating everyone in the organization, expanding their understanding of the business, the how parts of the management system interconnect, and the shared vocabulary used to clarify these ideas. In lean terms, by practicing continuous improvement and respect for people through investment in knowledge.

Many people have their favorite story, either from first hand experience or heard second hand from others, about the power of seeking advice from front line people during a lean project. Mine has to be the time we hosted a dozen executives from a diversified industrial, which we will call Company T, for a two and a half day lean boot camp. Between them these executives represented about 10 billion in revenue, so kudos goes to them for overcoming the “I’m too busy” excuse and showing up. They were in the midst of rebooting their top heavy, highly structured lean six sigma effort, led by veteran master black belts from GE, which had stalled out in terms yielding improvement results after the initial harvesting of low-hanging fruit. We took them on several tours of U.S. companies, aided by their corporate jets, which added some cognitive dissonance to the message of lean and gemba. At a custom vehicle manufacturer we visited, cross-functional teams had been working on improvements for just over a year. While they weren’t yet very impressive to look at, their cultural and technical challenges were exactly the types that Company T were facing. After a gemba tour  led by the team leaders of each area, we had a lunch meeting during which the project team leaders each shared results as well as before and after photos. During the Q&A, one of the executives from Company T asked the teams, “How do you feel about all of this?” To which the one of the plumbers replied, “It’s great. Just, why didn’t they ask us [for our advice] 20 years ago?” The was an explosion of sound from the audience, a combination of delight from the consultants, anguish from the local management, a-ha moments from Company T people, general applause, groans of temporarily deflating egos, and good-humored laughter. Perhaps the mixed cries of the dinosaurs and  early mammals as Chicxulub slammed into the Yucatan had been something like that.

The lesson here is not about lean, six sigma or lean six sigma. It is not about an organic, bottom-up approach to lean versus a structured approach sponsored and driven by corporate HQ. It is not about exactly when how much time executives commit to the gemba. There are far too many reasons why lean succeeds or fails over time for any intellectually honest lean coach to declare which approach does or does not work on a general basis. The lesson, and the the challenge for the lean coaches, is to develop some meta-advice regarding, “What is your advice on getting leaders to ask ‘What is your advice on..?’?”

  1. Rob Thompson

    May 5, 2015 - 6:51 am

    Its really interesting to see that “fear” is mentioned as a reason to resist going to gemba. Fear is a basic human instinct regardless of where you sit within the organisational structure. Deming asked us to ”Drive out fear”. It is counter-productive. It prevents employees (and leaders) acting in the organisation’s best interests. Too much fear prevents trust, constrains improvements and stifles the development of a great culture. Leaders have to be a reflection of the behaviours they desire from others, they have to lead by definition. As Frances Hesselbein said in The Key to Cultural Transformation, Leader to Leader:

    “Culture does not change because we desire to change it. Culture changes when the organization is transformed; the culture reflects the realities of people working together every day.”

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