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Why should I manage as if I had no power when power is the most effective way of getting things done?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I’m tired of hearing I should manage as if I had no power. Surely power is the most effective way of getting things done, isn’t it?

Good point. Yes, power is the best way of getting things done – but not getting them to stay done.

Command and control get things done, no debate. Tell people what to do, make sure they do it or else – truth or consequences. Things will get done. But haven’t you noticed how they backslide? How results evaporate and the same problems come back time and time again?

Look at all the examples we have around us of someone using their clout to get things their way. First, they’re praised as such a doer. Then people grumble and grumble. Middle-management starts to lie to protect the leader from the reality of the frontline. Then fires break out faster than you can put them down. Finally, the organization is in even worse shape than before and everyone vilifies the one-time great leader.

I can’t think of any more spectacular example that Jack Welch’s GE – getting things done indeed! Welch was nicknamed "Neutron Jack" for eliminating employees while leaving buildings intact.[19] In Jack: Straight From The Gut, he says that GE had 411,000 employees at the end of 1980, and 299,000 at the end of 1985. Of the 112,000 who left the payroll, 37,000 were in businesses that GE sold, and 81,000 were reduced in continuing businesses, basic research, and closed or sold-off businesses that were under-performing (What it says in Wikipedia, anyhow).

We now know what a scam it all was and that Welch’s GE was an even bigger scandal than Enron, but at the time it was very seductive. I know, I studied GE closely wondering what would be the better continuous improvement model to commit to: GE’s six sigma and “workouts” or Toyota’s TPS.

Management Shock and Awe

I was on the Gemba yesterday visiting a plant where the manager changed about a year ago. The previous guy had set up the plant as a greenfield and grew it to a volume of, say, 1,000 a day. He left because he had been promised a second greenfield to build, but in fact, the CEO decided to lean the plant and increase output in the existing facility.

He was a great manager by power standards: getting things done, making his case forcefully, surrounded by a loyal cadre of officers. But there was always a new crisis. No supplies (had to fire a bad supplier), no staff  (no more operators in the region), wrong demand mix, etc. And of course, never time for kaizen.

With the new manager, the plant now hits 3,000 a day on a good day. There are no crises. The atmosphere is easy going and friendly, the kaizen proposals from employees are incredible.

It’s not that the previous manager didn’t do improvements – he did, plenty. When asked forcefully enough, he delivered. But it didn’t stick. With the new PM, everything is lower key, messier, not so controlled, but he works with his people every day and changes stick – so progress is continuous and cumulative. And the plant is transformed.

Western management theory is one of overwhelming force. Yes, it gets things done. When you have a strong advantage (say, bigger guns or proprietary technology) and an open field, don’t bother with lean – just get it done. The downside is that if never sticks. The deal forced out of people without equivalent progress in the relationship and education simply unravels later.

The U.S. won the Vietnam war militarily. It won the Afghan war militarily. It certainly won both Iraqi wars. We know how well all of that panned out.

The lean approach of managing as if you had no power is the key to making fixed problems stay fixed.Messy but Lasting

Lean management theory is one of adaptiveness. If you build strong relationships with allies through a common goal of bringing value faster to customers and society, and through working together on kaizen projects, you develop mutual respect and a shared understanding of the world. You don’t impose your sole will on the world. You respond to challenges with friends, and learn how to deal with obstacles, and make positive changes that stick.

The lean approach of managing as if you had no power is the key to making fixed problems stay fixed.

Sure, it takes longer. Sure it’s messier and dicier as people have different, muddled opinions about situations and their own ideas about where to start and how to go about it. Which is precisely what makes the lean strategy adaptive.

For instance, the moment you set a product introduction takt time, everything changes. The problems you immediately face are:

  • What do our customers like about our product (our heritage) and what should we change to be in the spirit of the times (where is our legacy)?
  • Who do I need to work with to deliver at takt?
  • What are the main technical obstacles we need to face before we start doing all the hard work?
  • Which resources do we need to prepare now because we’ll need them later?
  • What are the key innovations I really need to get to grips with?

These simple questions are adaptive – they will make you change your mind early on about the new product – and if they can’t all be resolved this time around, we’ll keep working at it for next time. The alternative is deciding the current product has exhausted its current marketing potential and deciding that “we need X and Y to survive so I want you to do A, B, and C.”  Then use all your power to sell it to customers, make your people deliver, and squeeze your suppliers – classic Porter strategy.

There are no absolutes. Yang turns into yin, yin turns into yang. Yes, there are situations, unique opportunities where one has to move fast and burn the boats and where, absolutely, the naked use of power and overwhelming force will get the job done. But will it get you what you want? It will if you can cash out.

Otherwise, you’re likely to have to deal with the consequences later on. In this case, an adaptive lean approach is messier and apparently longer to get started (in real life, it isn’t), but it will deliver lasting solutions to the problems you’re facing and improve your competitive position sustainably. As one of my sensei used to say, “It really depends on which problem you’re trying to solve.”

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