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The Most Frustrated Person in Your Company

John Shook
11/14/2008
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No, it’s not you. Earlier in my career I spent most of my time down in the front lines of organizations. As time passed, I associated more and more with higher and higher organizational levels. Nowadays, I spend a lot of time with COOs and CEOs.

That transition has been interesting in many ways, as you may know from your own experience. One interesting insight has been to find that, as you move up and down the organizational ladder, worries change while they stay the same.

For those who work in organizations, it becomes second nature to look up -- look up for praise, look up for solutions, for orders, for direction. Now, some among us tend to look down -- to take care of their own people or perhaps to be “liked” by them. Others look sideways, maybe seeking recognition from peers. Of course, none of us does any of those things ALL the time. But, organizational climbers tend to usually look up.

And so the person at the top is often someone who has -- no surprise here -- spent a lot of his time looking up. Then, after a career of climbing and finally making his way to the top, he looks up and … there’s no one there! (Actually, of course, that’s not really true -- there is a board of directors and a portfolio of customers, but the theory of the system states that the CEO is now in the driver’s seat -- he or she is “accountable”.) So what does all this mean to us as we try to radically transform our organizations?

To explore that, let’s go back to the front lines. I couldn’t count the number of times I have heard from front-line managers: “I know what to do to lead my organization, but I have all these constraints … if I were plant manager, I could get this done.”

So, I go talk to the plant manager. And guess what. The plant manager says the same thing: “I could get this done if I were VP of operations”.

I go talk to the Ops VP. She says the same thing. “If I were the COO …”

And so it continues. All the way to the CEO’s office. And, to my surprise and perhaps to yours, there is no one in the organization who is more frustrated than the CEO. Your CEO. Why? Because he can’t get done anything that he wants to get done! He can issue edicts, only to find corporate inertia smother every initiative. He can reengineer incentives, only to find the law of unintended consequences hijacks his good intentions. He can develop brilliant strategy, only to find lack of capability in the organization render the strategy stalled at the start line.

What does that mean to all of us, we non-CEOs? It is true that wherever we sit in an organization, we have to look elsewhere for many things -- we can’t develop broad corporate strategy on our own; we have challenges that naturally cascade from above or are outside of our control. But, if you decide to wait until you are bestowed with all the authority you think you will need to bring about the change that you want, you will be waiting forever.

That’s the great thing about lean management as I view it -- it’s based on individuals taking initiative to improve the things within their control, however broad or narrow that may be. Individuals in a lean management system take initiative to gain authorization to implement their ideas, manufacturing the authority they need when they need it: on-demand, just-in-time, “pull-based authority.” You will find no more appropriate occasion to exercise initiative, no better place to start than … right here and right now. This is as opportune as it gets.

See you next week.

John Shook
Senior Advisor, Lean Enterprise Institute
4 Comments | Post a Comment
Johannes Link November 16, 2008
That's how I usually spent the first couple of months when teaching software teams to become "agile": Convincing people to just try what they think is the right thing to do and not to wait for someone to give them permission. When - and if - I succeed in doing that, mostly everything else is a piece of cake.
Walt November 19, 2008
I have been in about 16 Manufacturing Plts and Distribution Centers this year walking the plant floors and looking and listening. What I often hear is mostly blaming from both management and hourly against each other, but very little leadership on either side. And when I do see a leader trying they are often looked upon as strange or they are an outcast. As I read more about Ohno I really don't think they (both mgt and hourly) looked upon him any differently during his time - but the key difference was he was a leader with vision, he saw his company differently, he saw them as the best at a time when they were one of the worst. "If the learner hasn't learned, the teacher hasn't taught". During my time at doing this when i see something really good i normally see a really good teacher and leader - they go hand and hand.
Anonymous December 18, 2008
The lean thinking brings me to the ideals that if I want to be an agent of change I must hone my skills for leading people; while I master the art of managing the processes.
In my travels through the many different segments of business I have often found there is one wedge that drives a gap in the ability of moving from strategy to action that involves leaders that have the concepts above; reversed by this I mean they try to manage people and lead the process. This is the gas that fuels conflict and the rejection to change.
Anonymous January 7, 2009
What the H - E double toothpicks did you just say?!?!