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.
Lean Enterprise Institute