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Thinking Outside the Pyramid

by Daniel Fisher
January 17, 2014

Thinking Outside the Pyramid

by Daniel Fisher
January 17, 2014 | Comments (3)

Being fairly young and new to the world of managementI work as the Director of Productivity at a company that designs and manufactures wind tunnel modelsI often feel I am blessed (and cursed at times!) with a different perspective on management and leadership than those of some of my more seasoned colleagues.

I see the ways of old still very much a dominant driver in how so many managers and leaders view their departments and employees. Similar to ancient monarchical societies, “Leaders are born, not made” is the idea. Those few with the divine touch are blessed with the ability to lead and preside over the unfortunate many! An image comes to mind of a pharaoh perched atop a gaudy throne, a half completed pyramid… workers struggling to move mountains of stone with nothing but their bare hands. 

Exaggerated analogies and caricatures aside, that is the all knowing, all powerful approach we often see leaders take when interacting with those they lead: “I am the boss, do as I say.” Working in Lean and Six Sigma, I often see the “upside down pyramid” explained, in which organizational charts are flipped upside down in a vivid display of sweeping change. The theory is great, but how often is this really practiced and how much value does it add beyond a great performance?

I think it’s time we start thinking outside the pyramid. From my view, I don’t think it’s a matter of flipping any shape up, down, or sideways. When you work together intertwined within the team, there are no sides, there’s no real top or bottom. There are only people working alongside one another. When leaders strive to empower their workforce, to facilitate success within their teams, and communicate effectively with their colleagues and team members, that’s when true leadership shines and real work gets done. 

Managers can’t be above going to the gemba and rolling up their sleeves. I don’t mean once a week walking through and giving orders, conveying schedules, or shooting the breeze for a few minutes. I mean really rolling up their sleeves and helping out. How can you request your team to complete a task by a deadline if you don’t know exactly what goes in to getting it accomplished? How can you build trust and relationships with your employees without knowing what they do every day?

I once worked for a dictator (excuse me, boss!) who demanded my team and I ship a product out that we had already shipped the week prior. When I tried to convey this information, I could almost hear the air sizzle as steam left their nostrils and hit the cool warehouse air. They had never set foot in our department and had absolutely no idea what part numbers or descriptions were what. They had only heard of schedules and products in management meetings inside a comfy conference room. The result of this conversation was a huge drop in respect for this manager as well as loss in general productivity in our department. This type of “leadership” was commonplace, too, which didn’t help. No one was willing to give 100% to someone to who didn’t share in their plight and instead, just made things worse.

As leaders, we need to make ourselves a part of the team, not position ourselves at the top or at the bottom of it. Working together is something you do; it’s not just something you say you do or say you value while keeping separate silos.

I have to disagree with Machiavelli in The Prince when he says, “It is better to be feared than loved.” Sorry, but those days are over. It’s better to respect people and be respected. This only happens when teams feel they are working together to accomplish a goal as opposed to being told what to do. People need to take on ownership of a goal and feel personal pride in its completion. When they do, you'll be amazed at the boost in moral and quality of work. A good leader provides his/her team with the tools and opportunities they need to succeed. A good leader doesn’t say, “I am the boss, do as I say” but, “How can I help you succeed today?”

How can we, as lean practitioners, eliminate the wasteful ideas surrounding management and change the status quo of old? I would love to hear others thoughts on the subject: What are the best ways you have found to change ideas around leadership? How have you empowered your team members or seen others do this?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  collaboration,  gemba,  leadership
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Osvaldo Spadano January 17, 2014

Thanks Daniel for sharing. I know change can take time and I am so hopeful that the new generation will fully embrace a better way of managing and making everyone's work more meaningful.

How can we help change? "Every little helps..."

Here is a small personal story. Inspired by TPS and the Lean movement back in 2002 I started adopting it in a new Tech venture, which became a market leader. Why? We were doing something new and disrupting and honestly I did not know how to make it happen. It helped that only one year earlier I finished a postgrad in Management; what a contrast! :-) That contrast made things so clear to me and since embarking in my Lean journey I never looked back. What made the venture take off and become market leader? The answer was in the question, "I did not know how to make it work"...

Few years later I joined the management team of a London branch of the Chartered Management Institute, with plenty of "old" good people. I organised a couple of events about Lean Management, the first one with Dan Jones was a big hit. You know what? It had an impact.

How do I know? For example, one of the key member of that management team, who was not aware of Lean, started learning more about it. Recently I found out she was one of the speakers at a Lean Summit in Turkey. She started her own journey and embraced it. I am sure she touched few more people on her own.

Happy journey, and even when it gets tough, you get fired by the CEO/Boss, be happy, because you've left a mark and made many people around you see things in a different way.

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Daniel Fisher January 18, 2014
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Thanks for the story Osvaldo. I agree, every little bit helps!


The smallest action or instance has the potential make an impact on someones life, especially those who are looking to you to lead. Thats why I believe its so important for us as leaders, to look at all of those actions we make in depth, to be constantly evaluating oursleves and holding ourselves to a higher standard. In one simple statement you could inspire someone to set out to inspire others, or diminish a fire that was just beginning to burn.

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Ignacio Escobedo January 21, 2014

Hi Daniel
Thanks for
sharing a “story” that many of us “young” lean practitioners see in
the everyday leadership and I will say that not only in the business world but also outside of it.

I think that we in the business world have a lot to learn on leadership from people outside of it, we just need to “go see, ask why and show respect” and one example that came to my mind while I was reading your post is the leadership you see in football, especially in the offense team, where you have a leader (the quarterback) that rolls ups his sleeves every single day to work with his team to achieve a common goal. He knows that his success and the achievement of the goal depends on hard team work, trust, guidance (mentoring and coaching), focus and passion, that is true leadership in the gemba.

So I leave some food for thought: Coaching Kata and Improvement Kata will resemble this type of leadership? And If practice at all organizational levels can we create a true continues improvement culture? Let’s remember that Kata brings also the humility of not only been a mentor but also a mentee.

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