Last Thursday's Journal had a story titled “How to Be a Better Boss? Spend Time on the Front Lines.” The article talks about senior leaders going to see work being done at the front lines. Does this have to be a special act, like some sort of “Undercover Boss” reality show stunt or can it be a daily occurrence?
The article gives examples of leaders from companies ranging from DaVita, a small cellular communications company, and Subway as they spend time doing front-line work as part of rotational or development programs.
From the article:
DaVita is among the handful of firms that require key officials to do front-line stints so they can stay in closer touch with their troops. Under an expanded version of Reality 101 launched this month (Feb.), middle managers and executives must also shadow employees in other roles such as dietitian and social worker for at least one day a year.
Lean management refers to “going to the gemba.” Gemba is a Japanese word that means “the actual place,” referring in this context to “the place where the work is actually done.” The goals of going to the gemba include seeing problems first-hand and working to coach and support employees and managers in improvement efforts.
Lean leaders don't make this front-line time a once a year activity. They practice this every day. Leaders at ThedaCare, for example, are in the gemba every day (as described in this article by Kim Barnas).
Spending any time on the front lines can help senior leaders understand the reality of a company, as a senior leader at Moorehead Communications learned:
Those workers toiled in a small warehouse crowded with 30 bins. “None of the higher-ups realized it, but the employees were miserable in the tiny space” and it quickly grew disorganized, Mr. [Scott] Moorehead remembers. He persuaded his mother to knock out a wall to expand the spaceâ€”a move that made operations more efficient.
More significantly, he saw firsthand how the wide pay discrepancy between salespeople and store managers led to worker resentment and high turnover. When he took on the top job, he changed pay for the sales staff, a decision that immediately reduced staff turnover.
So it's good he saw some of these problems first hand. It lead Moorehead to want more employee feedback. But, instead of getting it at the gemba, they set up a website for employees to give feedback… and the site was eventually shut down because management didn't like what they were hearing.
As Mr. Moorehead advanced, he created channels for frank feedback. One was Voice It, an internal website link created in 2006. Employees willing to identify themselves aired complaints online and received monthly responses from executives.
But “there were a lot of petty gripes,” such as store staffers who disliked limits on wearing jeans, Mr. Moorehead recollects. In late 2008, the company removed Voice It.
The Lean leadership model is time consuming. It means going to the gemba every day to be visible and to remain connected to those who are adding value for patients or customers. Without a good gemba perspective, you run the risk of comical situations like the one described on Dan Markovitz's blog, where a chief of surgery and a hospital president argued with a front-line doc about whether the hospital accepted public ambulances or not…
How much time are your organization's leaders spending at the gemba? How much time do you think they should be spending? Can you do just “one day a year” or does it need to be more of an ongoing process.
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