One of the most important geometric shapes in lean management is the inverted triangle. Pyramids are commonly used to represent an organization chart. The boss is at the tip of the pyramid, with senior leaders immediately below, and the rank-and-file following. The wide base represents the frontline workers who have the least power and authority in the traditional organization. They are the ones who know what’s really going and do most of the work.
This inverted triangle represents a revolution in how we think about the role of leadership. Traditionally, control and power are top-down. In lean thinking we acknowledge that there is great potential to engage the minds of the people at the base of the pyramid. Lean thinking also recognizes that the role of leaders is to enable, coach, support and serve the entirety of the organization. Lean management principles, systems, structures and routines are designed to empower frontline people to do their best work, and to put leaders in roles of enabling this.
These past few weeks have been a humbling reminder how much we depend on the people at the base of the pyramid to make civilized daily life possible in our modern world. We don’t value, respect and recognize the people enough. While many knowledge workers including myself practice social distancing and work from home, men and women of the postal service continue to deliver. Garbage is being picked up from our streets. Drivers continue to pick up and deliver goods. People stock groceries and keep supermarkets open. Power company employees keep the lights on. City services such as police, fire and sanitation keep our streets free of chaos. Nurses continue to deliver hands-on care, even in the face of increased risk.
Readers who are not currently affected by local or state-wide shelter-in-place orders, curfews or lockdowns may not appreciate this sentiment. Yet.
People at the top of the pyramid are not so useful when it comes to the day-to-day mechanics of keeping our civilized society functioning. At best, they can support by listening to the people at the base of the pyramid and providing the resources and conditions to keep them safe, productive and able to do their jobs. Often the lower-paid workers are facing greater risks today, on behalf of the rest of society. It’s humbling to realize that in our daily lives, we fail to see, to get to know as individuals, or to adequately show appreciation to the people who do these foundational jobs.
We have an opportunity to reflect on this, to express more gratitude and respect to our grocers, delivery truck drivers and other frontline workers. If we can apply this new habit to broader society, we can surely bring renewed respect for people back to our workplaces, as things return to normal.
This reminded me of another revolutionary idea that seems more reasonable with each and every implausible day. British philosopher and social critic Bertrand Russell argued in his essay In Praise of Idleness that we would be better off if we placed less virtue on work and its rewards, and instead organized society around time spent being happy
First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two organized bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.
Many of us have heard or read the quote central to this idea, that there are two kind of work: moving stuff, and telling people to move stuff. The bigger idea is that Russell believed that distributing work more equitably across everyone in society would shorten our workdays, lower unemployment, increase leisure time, elevate culture, and result in greater overall human happiness. What would it take to do this? For starters, we would need a much broader method for asset valuation than shareholder return via EBITDA growth. We’ll have to rebuild the economy after this COVID-19 shock anyway, so why not?