After more than a decade spent with large corporations, I have been working for the past few years with CEOs of fast-growing tech companies staffed with anywhere from 30 to 200 people. And I’ve been surprised to discover that these two types of organizations have far more in common than simple differences. And perhaps the most important shared quality is the key question for the CEO: how do we find and cultivate the energy of the early days, when we were all fully engaged in the growth and success of the company?
In the early days of a startup, the CEO is the ultimate jack-of-all-trades contributor, switching from sales rep to janitor to marketer and support agent in a matter of hours. But as the company grows past 50 people, she is drawn to other matters — recruiting top executives, raising funds, trying to set a coherent vision. It does not take long for team members to feel disconnected from the top, and for teams to start pulling in different directions.
The usual "best practices" alleviate the problem...until they start to make things worse. Frequent all-hands meetings create a sense of temporary unity; but this reveals itself as a top-down approach. The detailed processes and procedures, coupled with a management by objectives system, substitute the richness of coordination with pre-determined responses and a few numbers; and sooner or later people feel like cogs in a machine.
The solution lies in the CEO’s hands — or rather in her feet and her calendar. The CEO can keep everyone on board with a disciplined routine of “gemba” visits: going out in the field to meet customers and team members. Depending on the activity and the context, the gemba — the place where work happens — might be the shop or the website where customers buy the company's products, the place where customers use these products, the office where teams work, or the codebase in which engineers build the features of the product.
But this is not just another version of “management by walking around”. Going to the gemba is no mere tourism, nor another opportunity for management to issue orders, check on projects or make long speeches. What makes lean brilliant is its focus on learning. The key to a successful gemba visit is a simple question from the CEO to the team: "What are you improving, and how can I help?"
As the company grows, team members find it more and more difficult to change their work environment. After a few months they fall into a kind of routine, and start thinking about leaving when they don't feel significant progress in their day-to-day work. They begin to lose interest in their job, and quality suffers. Whatever the processes and management systems in place, we all share the same core needs: security, autonomy, recognition, belonging, mastery, and a sense of purpose. When the CEO supports the teams in improving their activity and changing their work environment, it goes a long way on many of these dimensions.
The basic posture when going to the gemba is best summarized in a common mantra of the lean lore, based on the words of Toyota Chairman Fukui Cho: Go see, ask why, show respect.
1) Go and See is a much better option than Go and Talk. The lean perspective is that current performance is limited by opinions founded on misconceptions, and so, rooting out these misconceptions dramatically boosts the potential for improvement. The best way to do that is by confronting opinions with facts. You thus want to spend most of your gemba walks looking at things. For instance, in customer support, asking, “Can we look at the last 10 closed tickets?” will lead to more productive conversations than “How are the stats?" In software development, “Can we have a look at the code to see where the program failed? And the spec? And the test cases?" is a much better start than “Can you tell me what happened during the last incident?”
2) During your gemba walks you will invariably stumble upon unexpected things: people not focused on what you expected, work not being done the way you thought, problems not being addressed as you would like. You will be tempted to revert to the Command & Control script: issuing instructions on how to fix the issue. While this might improve things in the short term, it will prevent you from learning what actually caused the situation. The basic posture of a gemba walk is curiosity: why are things this way? Exploring the reasons behind the actions will lead you to learning something—and if done well, you will quite often be the one changing your mind.
3) Showing respect to customers, employees and suppliers is a prerequisite for them being engaged with your business. It obviously applies to your own behavior during the interactions with people, but also to what you pay attention to. A gemba walk is an exercise in awareness. You are looking for signs that the company itself is lacking respect, be it by overwork, unnecessary variation, or a difficult working environment. You are also looking for signs of "big company disease". Are people following processes rather than attending customer needs? Are they fighting for their interests at the expense of other teams? Are they oppressed by middle management? Are they defending legacy technology or abandoning heritage technology? One step further, what does your company look like through their eyes?
You know that you had a good gemba walk when you learned something new about your business and when the team has gained a renewed motivation and clarity to improve their activity.
A cadence of gemba is the ultimate weapon for the CEO against the "big company disease". It's a candle touching another candle to keep the flame of improvement and learning alive. It's one of the most potent ways to keep the "Day One" spirit vibrant over the years.
(The author has just published the book Learning to Scale: The Secret to Growing a Fast and Resilient Company.)