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How do we deal with a command-and-control boss?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Our boss always says, “It’s not my job to tell you how to do yours!” But then he tells us what to do all day long. How do we deal with this?

Honestly? I have no idea. You’re experiencing firsthand the difference between “espoused theory” (what we think we believe in/subscribe to) and “theory-in-use” (the mental models that support our actual behavior), a distinction long known in social sciences. Most people are unaware of the gap between their espoused theory and their theory in use (or even that there is a gap) and equally unaware of their theory-in-use. Others, however, see the difference as starkly as you do with your boss (particularly about bosses!)

To be fair, any manager has a problem. It’s natural to think that you hire people as extra pairs of hands to get done what you no longer can manage yourself. Then you get drawn into the horrible quandary that whenever you give them simple instructions, they go and do things in a way that you don’t like – and as often as not -- doesn’t work. You expected to rely on others to get help, but now you need to spend time, energy, and attention managing them, which kind of defeats the purpose.

Management theory is clear, if not much help: tell them what you expect and let them get on with it. Get out of the way, then control results. It sounds fine on paper, but, clearly, whenever things get tricky it’s hard not to take back control and micromanage, particularly when the stakes are high – after all, you get promoted for your competence or your entrepreneurial flair.

Whatever the style, the assumption is that what the boss says, staff do. From employee’s perspective, however, this easily is experienced as a series of projects:

  1. I’m asked to do this or that;
  2. I think about it and come up with a plan that I get okayed by the boss;
  3. I get it done;
  4. It works or it doesn’t or somewhere in between (hard to know – the boss is happy or unhappy, but then again, he’s got his good and bad days);
  5. I move on to the next task I’m told to do.

And here the lean perspective is very disruptive. A lean boss doesn’t tell you to do this or that, she tells you to learn to do this or that. The big change is that she doesn’t expect you to get it right the first time, but she does expect you to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try all over again until you do get it right. There is a learning curve, and the question is how many cycles do you need to get competence, and then how many more cycles do you need to get good at it.

Not surprisingly, a boss that is trying to help you learn something will intervene – sometimes too much or too little to your liking, but she will step in – if only to show interest. And she will probably tell you to do something differently, hoping this will facilitate your learning, not hoping you’ll obey to the letter.

Lean Is Weird

Where lean is ever weirder, is that the boss might ask you to learn to do something she doesn’t know how to do.

Think about it this way. A leader practicing TPS as one practices tennis is foremost interested in value analysis (figuring out how to improve value for customers to products or services already in production) and value engineering (figuring out what new value to add to products or services in the design and development stage). To do this, she needs to learn:

  1. To accelerate the flow with just-in-time to lower the water in the lake and make the rocks appear (think of it as the forehand in tennis);
  2. Learn to visualize problems for all employees so they see, stop, and call out (think of it as the backhand);
  3. Learn to better level, fraction, mix the plan (the serve);
  4. Learn to engage people in problem-solving to better master their standards (the volley);
  5. Learn to engage teams in kaizen so they gain mastery over their ways of working (lob);
  6. Develop team and equipment basic stability to enhance mutual trust (smash);
  7. Etc.

The problem is the boss cannot learn any of these moves on her own. Lean is profoundly collaborative. She can only learn through your doing. If she wants to learn to pull work in your area, she’s dependent on you setting up a kanban and pulling. Sure, she can micromanage you in doing so, but the chances are that neither of you will learn much.

In fact, the radical management departure of lean is shifting from command-and-control to orient-and-learn together. This is not a small change.

Which means that the boss’ relationship to your work in lean is not completely hands off. If you’re doing fine, sure the boss will follow the idea “eyes on, hands off” attitude of Gemba walks, but if you start struggling, chances are the boss will jump in and try to help you figure it out, which is also the smart thing to do.

Lean Leadership Is Not for Everyone

I can’t answer the question within the traditional context of command-and-control, because, well, the delegation problem is well known and has no real answer. You either command-and-control too tightly and people stop using their heads, or you delegate too much and they do their own thing in their own way and often everyone is lost.

The lean leadership take on management is about managing learning curves, which is:

  1. Figuring out what we need to learn right now – which often has as much to do with the boss’s learning curve as your own.
  2. Admitting that there will be several cycles because until you get it right, as one hardly ever learns to ride a bike without surviving a few falls.
  3. Committing to sticking to it until we’ve figured it out – for instance, I have yet to see a pull system not delivering better flow, but they are harder to set up in some cases than others.
  4. Developing a collaborative relationship where sometimes the boss lets employees get on with it and own it and sometimes both get involved with the details to help with the learning (and figure out it all) but both remain always interested.

I’m not sure this helps with your specific case, but writing this I realize how much of an attitude change lean leadership demands of managers, and why it’s not for everyone.

Some managers are good at getting things done and moving on (usually excellent fire-fighters) others are good at learning by try-and-see. Shifting from one style to the other can be confusing to the people in place who have acclimated to command-and-control. On the other hand, there are always good surprises when people who were simply not engaged by being commanded and controlled, and showed little interest and lackluster performance, bloom in a learning environment. The trick to lean is they learn/you learn.

4 Comments | Post a Comment
Carl Watt March 27, 2017

1. Get the top person to start any kind of lean management system

2. Get the command and control person coached and monitored on use of the system

3. Eventually the command and control person will act himself into thinking a new way, or get tired of it and quit.

4. Keep showing the command and control person how the system is lowering his workload.

mostly this fails because the number one person doesn't want a lean management system.

Jerome Biensan March 28, 2017

Hi Carl, every point of yours are located at the first learning curve: "Figuring out what we need to learn right now". This "right now" is the origin of each step as an initial status of a PDCA loop, if you want to get the top person of your organisation to start with a Lean system, you have to make him learn something first (it can be "lean is the strategy", let us try some easy tools first and let us learn something about our clients/products/processes...).

kevin kobett March 29, 2017

My first employer had a good program. Got me hooked big time on lean. It was a corporate suggestion program. An employee wrote his/her suggestion on a numbered corporate form. Three supervisors/managers added their opinions. The appropriate local manager accepted or declined the suggestion. Either way, the form was sent back to corporate. Numbered suggestion forms ensured none were lost.

If the suggestion was approved, the employee was awarded points that could be redeemed for merchandise. This started the goal setting process. If you wanted something more expensive, you had to make another suggestion. Funny thing. After a few months, the merchandise wasn't as important as the achievement. The merchandise was a reward for bucking the staus quo.

I would only add one process improvement to this procedure. Ask successful employees, "who was helpful?." No one gets promoted if they are not helpful.

kevin kobett March 29, 2017

Forgot something. This company now rates high on the best place to work list. Coincedence?

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