When a CEO comes by, is luck around?

About a week ago, a fellow CEO came to our place for a brainstorming session. When we had finished our intense discussion, I asked if he was interested in a guided tour of our office.

The time I spend walking around is usually a way to light up new tangents in « high level » conversations with others from my digital (or lean) community. It can also be a way to ask my employees for a demo or an explantation: they would take a few minutes to comply and usually feel proud afterwards. But more often than not, my visitor would have no time for such frivolous endeavor and would leave as soon as possible. One exception is Lean henchmen: they wouldn’t miss an opportunity for another Gemba walk.

Another exception was this particular CEO: he’d heard about the way we worked and had some free time before his next meeting. After 5 minutes, we stopped in front one of our Kaizen boards : the header showed 6 columns, Problem, Cause, Action, Results, Learnings and Status. Interested, he took a couple of pictures: I could sense something ticked inside his brain. Straight after, he had seen enough and was ready to leave. Once again I was left wandering what it meant to « get Lean » and how to convey its importance to my daily routines as an entrepreneur.

And today I was reminded how CEO effect on firm performance is mostly due to chance events. How could I convey the importance of Lean to any CEO if his work and success hold so much to plain and simple luck?

Maybe an event like a simple Gemba walk or the Lean Tour I’m co-hosting in Lille next month is just an opportunity for someone to get lucky. Who knows what happens when you get to see a couple of teams doing good work for their customers? If Toyota has been lucky for quite some time, maybe there’s still something to learn along the way. Even if it means learning to see new problems everyday: some of us seem to find it fun, challenging and rewarding.

A Lean journey is built upon relations

X — You seem to make a difference between Lean and Operational Excellence but I feel they’re the same thing : both tend to use Kanbans, Red bins, 5S and everything in between.

Me — I would argue the difference is not related to tools : as you’ve noticed, they tend to be the same. My feeling is the discrepancy emerges with the attitude of the « boss ». From my experience, bosses sending their teams to training will create - at best - an « Operational Excellence » culture. But when bosses start teaching their staff (because they’ve learned the path beforehand), you end up in a very different whereabouts : « Lean » is the concept I tend to use for such places.

X — But if you have the people doing the actual work using the same set of tools, surely it should be indistinguishable.

Me — It would be the case if bosses didn’t matter. Maybe being a boss means I’m biased, but I feel a management team can make or break such effort.

X — Obviously any bad boss can derail a company. But I wasn’t thinking about them… What difference do you see between a good boss teaching lean tools and a good boss sending his staff to lean workshops ? Surely there’re both doing OK.

Me — The team’s capacity to challenge assumptions. A key factor here is the boss going to the gemba to understand firsthand what’s going on. You can be fooled by numbers on a spreadsheet in the meeting room, it’s more difficult to not see clues when actively looking for them on the shop floor.

X — But I thought you were talking about the team’s capacity to challenge assumptions. A boss can always do that, from his office, from his team’s office or even from the warehouse if he went there.

Me — Off course, but for the team to challenge assumptions, you need two things : trust and proximity. And for both to emerge you need a boss going regularly to the Gemba. Everything is tied to the relations created there and then ! Otherwise they're just throwing bottles into the sea.

Lean tools for the CEO in a hurry

X — I remember discovering lean tools at my first job but that was long ago. Hearing you talking about it has sparked my interest again: any tips on what tool I should try at my company?

Me — Forget about the tools, there are too many of them. Maybe you want to start with a couple of books with stories about lean turnarounds, I’ve got a dedicated bookshelf at my office.

— I don’t read much, sorry. I’ve also heard kanbans were interesting though really hard. Maybe something else, more palatable?

— Sorry, you need to embrace Lean to the full or you’ll just pick up the low hanging fruits.

— Sounds good enough to me, picking up the low hanging fruits is already a quick win. Where do I start?

Me, disheartened — Since you’re a e-commerce company, the shipping area should be interesting enough. Go there, look for missed deadlines, try to remove any blocker and set a target of halving the bad and doubling the good.

X, interrupting — But that’s the job of my logistics manager! Not mine.

— If you can’t pierce through silos within your own company, nobody can. That’s part of the CEO magic. The real lean transformation always start with a CEO. In France, the biggest IPO in 2021 was Aramis Auto: its CEO went as far as co-writing a book with his sensei (among others). OVHcloud did follow a few months later with a much-anticipated IPO as well. Guess what: in 2018, it was already hosting lean events.

— Funnily enough, it’s my CTO that really enjoys taking a break from his coding routine by doing some picking with the front-line staff for an hour or two.

— Let me guess : you know have a picking app that’s stellar.

— I don’t know. And how would I know anyway ? That’s his job by the way…

— All right then, what’s your job?

— What do you mean? I’m the CEO, and that’s what it is ! And by the way, thanks to our determination through the pandemic, we’ve just had a great year.

— How do you know it wasn’t just luck?

— …

— Maybe a visit to the warehouse could help : just standing there and listening deeply will probably bring clues. And if you ever need to justify yourself, for example if someone asks you what you’re doing there doing nothing, just say you’re practicing Genchi Genbutsu. It’s one of those Lean tool you were asking about after all.

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