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What is the hardest conversation you ever had during gemba walks?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

What is the hardest conversation you ever had during Gemba walks?

That’s easy – discussions about job purpose. For instance, just the other day I was accompanying a CEO on his gemba walk in the IT department. These guys have been practicing lean for a while now so they track (more or less) the lead time on demands from the business in terms of IT change requests, and they can show you the backlog. Looking into the backlog led to a conversation about what needed to be done right now and what could wait – or not get done at all. Not surprisingly, the CEO had a very different notion of what was useful to the business from what the IT head thought – which was different again from how his teams prioritized work.

Modern organizations are, by and large, bureaucracies now led by financiers. Bureaucracy means that work is divided into functional departments, information goes up through a chain of command and instructions go down, people are evaluated on how competent they are in their narrow field and how loyal they are to their departmental managers. People at the top are increasingly financiers who understand the world in terms of investing in new systems and reducing line-by-line costs, believing, not necessarily wrongly, that if you optimize locally what you have and invest in what you need to acquire on the market (everything is seen as a commodity), you’ll be all right.

With these conditions in place, any one person in any team in any functional department will legitimately define their job purpose as doing what they’re asked in the best way they can think of – from the departmental point of view. This IT department, for instance, was focused on implementing new IT systems to “prepare the business for the future,” and had, not surprisingly a huge backlog of bugs to work through because of too many migrations at the same time. The CEO was thinking lean and asking them to learn to better use existing systems to respond to the clear and present needs of the business – they were talking at cross purposes.

Feeling Threatened 

Now, we know that in 2018, ultimate success comes from delivering more value to customers than competitors and that that means better managing the complex mess of operations and systems any company has become. In production, we’ve got a neat trick to do so with kanban. We can translate customer demand into short response loops in order to pierce the technical silos and get closer, progressively, to multi-process cells producing a variety of products as close as can be to real-time demand. It’s hard to do, but if you want to do it, you know how.

In engineering, this is even harder to do, but there again, lean gives us a fairly good idea of going about it with the regular renewal of products at takt time and growing good chief engineers who are “CEO of the product” – they have a responsibility from identifying customer needs to defining the change points to delivering a profit for the product. The chief engineer system, should you use it, allows you to pierce the silos.

But when it comes to other departments such as, say, IT, HR, finance, we’re a bit at a loss. And the more gemba walks you conduct there, the more you realize how strong the functional cultures are and how much people work for their function rather than the company. To push it to the extreme, people in functional departments are more concerned about the latest technique in their peer group, across companies, than in their contribution to the success of their firm. To be honest, they tend to confuse these two things and keep trying to convince management to adopt the latest trend in the field for the good of the business.

Hard to blame them as well, as the mind is constructed around:

  • Shortcuts: We are structurally in conditions of information overload, so we tend to rely on simple ideas and rules of thumb, particularly if we feel over-challenged or too pressed for time.
  • Motivated thinking: We cherry pick information in order to win arguments rather than stay curious to discover what the territory really looks like. This means that anyone naturally expressing his or her own self-interest in terms of general good (with “evidence” to support it), which enables him or her to moralize the issue and label persons agreeing with them the “good guys” and opponents the “bad guys.”
  • Peer pressure: Going against the group position, studies show, lights up areas in the brain close to physical pain, whether you are right or wrong. Thinking for yourself and going against the dominant opinion in your social group is never going to be easy.

Which means that when, during a gemba walk, job purpose is questioned, people can react quite defensively and occasionally aggressively. They truly believe 1) the CEO has no idea what they do and how it’s critical to the company, 2) they feel threatened in their competence and posture and 3) this all happens in front of managers and co-workers. These conversations, particularly in the early days, seldom go right because people are asked questions about the purpose of their jobs

  • How does what you do help customers?
  • By helping the people in the chain closer to customers?

They simply don’t know how to answer and keep falling back on “what we do is right because it’s what we do” and go back to explaining what they do, without ever answering the question.

What can be done about it?

Well, first be patient and persistent, go back and back to the gemba and try to explain things more clearly. At a higher level, the CEO has a few tools to create better conditions to align all departments on value to customers by leading from the front in:

  1. Better storytelling to give clear explanations of what the challenges are and how issues should be approached (for instance, safety and quality first, then reduce lead-time, then reduce costs by better using capital, etc.). Explain, explain, explain – and illustrate with concrete stories.
  2. Teamwork at the executive committee level to reach agreement about what collective problems to solve and share more about functional projects and how they contribute to solving the company’s key problems.
  3. Transverse silo piercing systems such as just-in-time or total quality management, and make sure the control systems (indicators, metrics, and performance schemes) are aligned with what the culture leadership is trying to create – this is often a hard, hidden issue.
  4. Promote people with the right attitude and problem-solving skills, rather than hire and give responsibility to functional experts who are supposed to already know how to do the job (and will work for their functional field). By promoting people from within and supporting them to learn the specifics of the function, one can develop the right kind of talent.
  5. Distinguish clearly investment projects from getting more innovation out of existing systems, and favoring the latter – an investment project must be supported by the demonstration the existing system really, really can’t do the job.

None of this ever easy, but the impact on both immediate performance and future competitiveness are visible and often staggering. Still, to go back to your question, all of this starts with one of the toughest gemba questions: “What is your job’s purpose?”

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