WSJ: How to Be a Better Boss? Spend Time on the Front Lines


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 space—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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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. Thanks Mark for sharing. Today learned once again, being part of the system is when you see most of what is going on. Being at a hospital with my girlfriend only to realize that information is not flowing but stuck in silos which are equivalent with doctors’ rooms. Information given yesterday on the one end of corridor, today had to be given again in same fashion on the other side of the corridor – even the information must be in the electronic mind of the hospital already. Wondering whether this is just a minor process that when scaled into the whole operation makes clear that a yearly loss of 11 Mio. € is not difficult to achieve!! And best of all – mental model – nothing can be changed as there is no planned position for a lean thinker ;-)

    Time for change – I guess!

  2. Thanks Mark – everything is fine.
    Leaders (in case you mean doctors) at least two of them, yet many closed doors, and information systems that are not connected (even on the same floor, close departments). Many “little gembas” not connected to see the overall gemba ;-)

  3. Great article Mark. It reinforces the lessons of Going to Gemba on a high freqency, daily is great but no less than weekly.
    Each time leaders go to gemba they need to have a purpose. Things they want to understand more about. This leads to asking why? By doing so they become coaches and teachers.

    Going to gemba more frequently has the added benefit of getting people comfortable with leaders being on the front lines so they relax and open up more.

    • That comfort level is really important and I’ve seen that it takes some time to build trust. When leaders suddenly show up in the Gemba, it’s a common response for people to think “what’s wrong???”

      Leaders need to communicate about why they are going to be in the Gemba and, more importantly, they need to exhibit the right behaviors, as you mentioned — asking questions, coaching, mentoring, not assigning blame.

  4. Leaders seem to like the Wizard of Oz ruling from behind the curtain approach. Gemba is such an exciting place where all the action happens. I suppose since I’m years away from senior leader level, I don’t quite understands what their aversion is to being out on the floor observing first hand. Why are they hidden away in offices and meetings. You can’t rule a manufacturing floor or hospital 100% from behind a desk.

  5. I want to echo what Christina said …”You can’t run a manufacturing floor or hospital 100% from behind a desk”. I lived and breathed in manufacturing companies, and now I wear a suit in the Hospital as a internal consultant. My favorite part of my job is learning other people’s role through shadowing/ going to the Gemba.

  6. Mark,

    I’ve just been explaining Gemba to a set of professionals and I thought it might be good to share. They wanted to know why I did such work in the middle of the office, with the staff and didn’t find a quiet room.

    Some of what follows may echo the sentiments above.

    Firstly doing Gemba at the place (of work) invariably puts staff at
    ease, as suggested they don’t think “what have I done wrong? “. A quiet office, away from the place may carry the stigma of interviews, disciplinary hearings, staff being dressed down etc.

    Staying where they are comfortable is best, they relax and after time forget you are there. I’d only done a few hours with the staff and already I knew most of the errors, defects that creep out and work arounds that go on.

    Get someone to describe their work and they miss the detail. Watch them, listen and you’ll see the stuff they forget they do.

    You’ll appreciate the interruptions, the software and layout frustrations, the under and over communicators in the team, you learn the team dynamics. You can’t get that from a simple walk through or an interview.

    As for how long should people spend, realistically I think the aim should be 70% of their time. Often they are primarily responsible for the staff, so they should be the focus.

    Unfortunately I’ve met plenty of management who have the nickname “Santa”, you can guess why?

    As for the minimum amount of time, we once a had client relax back in his chair and state that he spent “around 3% of his time on the shop floor”.

    Hope this helps, Mark


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