God Forbid You Actually Listen to the Bottom 98%


Management Leaders Turn Attention to Followers – WSJ.com

This article caught my eye, this idea that someone other than top executives might actually have some ideas.

In “Followership,” a book being published this winter, Ms. Kellerman argues that a big organization's fate can be surprisingly dependent on how well it understands thousands of low-ranking employees, and makes them more effective. Entrepreneurs Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom took a similar perspective last year in their book, “The Starfish and the Spider,” suggesting that lower-ranking employees, called catalysts, need to drive organizational change, instead of top bosses.

Considering that the Lean and Toyota Way philosophies have been, for so long, based on listening to the ideas of those who actually do the work, how is this considered innovative thought?? Isn't that the whole magic of the Toyota approach, helping make all employees effective and getting them pointed in the same direction? Is Toyota avoiding that “big companies die” dynamic better than most?

The Best Buy chain is trying, to their credit, to implement such ideas:

“Look at why big companies die,” says Shari Ballard, Best Buy's executive vice president, retail channel. “They implode on themselves. They create all these systems and processes — and then end up with a very small percentage of people who are supposed to solve complex problems, while the other 98% of people just execute. You can't come up with enough good ideas that way to keep growing.”

When she visits Best Buy's electronics stores, Ms. Ballard says she asks managers: “What do you know about your customers that I couldn't possibly know?” The question encourages local initiatives that help Best Buy grow.

The idea that the “very small percentage” of top leaders are supposed to come up with the ideas, with the workers “just executing” — that's Taylorism and MBA-centric thinking at its finest (yes, I have an MBA myself… sorry). What do you think about that question she asks her store managers. Would you phrase it that way? Seems like the right direction, but there's something about that phrasing I don't like… that “I couldn't possibly know” part could put people on the defensive (making them not want to show up the boss) depending on how the words are delivered and the organizational culture.

Anyway, interesting article and hopefully a trend that will grow — actually listening to the people who are closer to the front lines. Shocking! Well… it's shocking, unless you've been studying Toyota and Lean.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I think that Best Buy exec’s question still has an undertone of “I *should* know everything… but if I were to not know something, what would it be?”

    How about you just ask, without the executive airs, “Hi, what do you think we should be doing differently?”

  2. After spending 5+ years in Minneapolis, I can tell you that Best Buy employees are very loyal. At a time when other CEO’s were making headlines for their multi-million dollar bonuses, Best Buy’s CEO was giving his bonus out to the ground-floor employees based on their Customer Service ratings from actual customer feedback.

    Every Best Buy employee in that city that I knew spoke highly of their upper managers. The company was a popular place to work.

  3. I really dislike the executive’s tone in that quote – it smacks of condescension rather than encouragement.
    Of course, the printed word can easily distort intent, but I’m not exactly willing to give Best Buy the benefit of the doubt.

    While their specific Minneapolis operations might be well run, the widespread horror stories really don’t suggest an organization that empowers anyone. Least of all consumers.

    Of all their horror stories, I think this is probably my favorite –
    (That is a link to a consumerist story, I am in no way affiliated with them).


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