A Surprising and Extraordinary Master Class in Non-Lean Management – WKRP Turkey Drop
Last Thursday, I re-watched a classic episode of “WKRP in Cincinnati.”
Yeah, I'm old enough that this is a show I watched as a kid. I was born in Dayton and lived just north of Cincinnati until I was five and I loved the radio… so that might have been part of the appeal to me, the rare show set in Ohio.
It was probably the first workplace-based sitcom I ever watched… maybe this had more of an influence on me than I realized.
In this blog, we usually write about “Lean” management and “Lean” organizations (or those that are working hard to be Lean)… this time, we'll explore what might be a very non-Lean (un-Lean?) company.
So anyway, a college buddy of mine LOVES the Thanksgiving-themed episode called “Turkeys Away” and seeing him post about it last week inspired me to watch. It's an episode from 1978.
You can get the episode via Amazon — it doesn't seem to be available for free online (but you could look… you'll most likely find clips on YouTube). It's episode 7 of season 1:
Here is the opening theme song….
Setting the Stage
After the opening scene establishes that Jennifer Marlowe, the executive assistant, apparently really runs things (she keeps the “important mail” to herself and won't put calls through to the boss), station manager Arthur Carlson tries to engage the sales manager, Herb Tarlek.
“How are things going in sales?,” asks Carlson.
Tarlek, who seems like a “brown noser,” gives the correct answer for a non-Lean organization:
“Everything's squared away, big guy.”
It's important for Tarlek to emphasize that he respects the hierarchy.
It's common in a classic non-Lean organization for everybody to tell their boss that things are fine, even if they're not. Any problems would be hidden or blamed on someone else, if they came to light. WKRP had recently gone through a format change (becoming a rock station) — but Carlson was the manager, before and after. A classic excuse for problems in sales would be to blame the change in programming.
As a quick aside, when I worked in the Lean Enterprise Institute office back in 2009, Jim Womack was often halfway around the world. But, when he WAS in the office, his favorite thing was to ask, as he walked by my desk:
“How are things going on the Lean healthcare front?”
He would never break stride, which was part of his joke. The first time, I tried to give an answer, and Jim said, again, with an impish grin:
“The answer is fine. Things are going fine.”
Again, I think Jim just enjoyed parodying the non-Lean manager… it was a bit of a running joke that I came to expect when I saw him coming into the office toward his desk.
Back to the episode, Carlson then tries to ask news director Les Nessman, “How's it going?” Nessman, while a nervous character in general, illustrates the fear-based response that one would see in a non-Lean organization. He replies, with trepidation:
“How's what going??”
Carlson clarifies that he wants to know what's going on in the news department.”
“Who wants to know??” — More fear.
When Carlson clarifies that “it's just me” who wants to know, Nessman says:
“Well then everything's going just fine… no problems!”
We've all heard that in a non-Lean organization. Compare that to the Toyota-ism of:
“No problems is a problem.”
Nessman is getting his mail and Carlson tries to look over his shoulder… Nessman pulls the mail in tight, as if he's afraid to share what it is.
Carlson does tell Nessman he's “doing a great job,” but it comes off as an empty platitude, since Carlson probably doesn't know the difference between a good news director and a bad one.
Carlson then seems a bit lost — what should he do now? Marlowe is reading the “important mail,” and he starts to play with a hanging basket… “DON'T TOUCH THOSE,” she says, without looking up from the mail.
“I think I'll probably just go slip out back, Jennifer, look around, maybe review the troops (ha ha)… rattle a few cages…”
Wait, is he going to go on a Lean “gemba walk“? Well, he might be planning on going to the gemba, but his attitude doesn't seem like one of “servant leadership” — he's fixated on the hierarchy by calling them the “troops.”
Marlowe gives a dismissive “Okie dokie.”
The Gemba Walks
Carlson first walks in to check on the DJ, “Dr. Johnny Fever.”
It looks like Fever is sleeping, or at least he looks very lazy. Not a good look for “the troops.”
Carlson barges in and slams the door shut. Fever doesn't move. Carlson pokes around at a few records. Slams them down. Fever doesn't flinch. Ah, he MUST be sleeping… or on drugs? Carlson waves his hand in front of Fever's face.
Then, we see that Fever is clearly awake… just ignoring the boss. Carlson leaves.
Fever reminds me of maintenance people at GM (or some healthcare professionals) who just want to be LEFT ALONE. They don't see their boss as a helpful figure… which is sad, but not surprising in a non-Lean culture.
Carlson then walks into an office / lounge area where another DJ, Venus Flytrap, and staffer Bailey Quarters.
Carlson, this time, tries to engage them… awkwardly. He slams the door as a way of announcing his presence.
After an awkward and delayed acknowledgment, he asks:
“Is Travis in?”
He asks first for Andy Travis, the new program director. Again, respecting the hierarchy. He's not there.
Carlson awkwardly asks Flytrap,
“Hey, what are you doing??”
Flytrap looks around and says, “Nothin'” although he's clearly doing something. Maybe he thought he was being racially profiled and answers as if to say “Nothin' wrong.” Either way, he just wants the boss to go away.
“Oh, you're off duty, huh”
Carlson jumps to conclusions and makes assumptions… hallmarks of the non-Lean manager.
He tries with Quarters, “How about you, what are you doing?”
Carlson doesn't even know their names? It's not that big of a team there at WKRP.
Quarters says she's working on a big promotion idea and Carlson lights up and asks about it. Quarters is hesitant. Carlson then brags that he's done “thousands of promotions” (bragging is a hallmark of a non-Lean leader). He asks her again to ask what she's planning.
She says, “We don't know if we should give away Boston t-shirts or Foreigner shirts.” These are, of course, famous rock bands, but Carlson doesn't know this. Instead of asking her to talk through her thought process, Carlson jumps in with an answer (as a non-Lean boss tends to do):
“Boston! Foreign stuff shrinks.”
Quarters gives a “yes, sir,” which means “ok, go away now.” On the way out, Carlson says, “OK, it was nice speaking to you both.”
The audience laughs, as they should. Carlson thinks his employees love him… but probably not. Flytrap shoots a look at Quarters that says, “Can you believe this guy?”
Many of the employees (Travis, Fever, Flytrap, and Quarters) are new. Carlson was the station manager when WKRP was an “easy listening” format.
Much of the humor in the series comes from Carlson being square and out of touch. He's now a fish out of water. The same can be true for managers who are suddenly given a “format change” when a new CEO or plant manager comes in who is really into Lean.
It's good to be empathetic rather than just laughing at them. It's hard when what worked for you in the past no longer works for you, as a leader (or a radio station).
Back to the Office
You'd think Mr. Carlson (they all called him “Mr. Carlson”) would be more comfortable in his office. Behind his desk, he's just fiddling with a pencil and is playing with it like it's a rocket ship taking off when Travis walks in.
Carlson not only invites Travis in, but sits him down behind his desk in HIS chair. Travis is confused. More so when Carlson tells Travis to put his cowboy boots up on his desk.
Carlson, to his credit, tries to build rapport. He asks Travis to tell him “the big picture.” He adds, “Shoot it to me straight, hot shot.”
Travis seems to pause and think if the boss really wants to hear the truth. Or just “fine, things are fine.” I'm smiling again thinking of Jim Womack.
“Well, everything's fine.”
And Travis tries to get up to leave. Carlson pushes him back down into the chair.
“Listen, I get that answer from everybody around here. Whoa, no problems.”
Wow, Carlson shows more self awareness than I was giving him credit for. But he probably blames his employees for not speaking up instead of thinking about what he can do to build trust.
“What's really going on, Travis?” whispers Carlson as he gets uncomfortably close.
“Nothing!” says Travis with a bit of incredulity. He then adds that everything is running really smoothly and he thinks they're on the right track, which could be true.
Carlson asks how Tarlek and Nessman are doing and then, surprisingly, asks,
“So… what about me? How am I doing?”
Travis says what you'd expect in a non-Lean don't-make-waves organization, “I think you're doing just fine.” Carlson asks, “You do? I see… why?”
Wow, I'm impressed with his ability to ask for feedback and to drill deeper by asking, “Why?” OK, I'm not yet willing to dub him a “Lean leader,” but maybe he isn't a lost cause.
Travis is confused. Carlson adds, “I mean, what am I doing good at?”
“You're the station manager!”
“Ah ha, that's what I am. But what do I do?“
Poor Mr. Carlson doesn't have clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Now, I am really empathetic. When he was made station manager, did he ever get clear instructions as to what he should do? If he was running promotions, he doesn't know exactly how to be a station manager any more than a VP of Nursing would suddenly know how to be hospital President if just thrown into the role.
Travis really cannot believe that his boss is asking this.
Travis smiles and explains, “You are the boss” and motions that he should sit in his chair. “You're the boss and you do…. boss stuff.”
Travis doesn't know either, LOL.
Carlson asks, “Such as?” Travis replies,
“Well, you uh… (stammers a lot)… let's just put it this way… just knowing that you're in here, boss, knowing that you're at the helm, gives us a lot of confidence.”
Ah, a little white lie. He's trying to end the awkward boss encounter as soon as possible.
It seems like Carlson is going to let him off the hook, but says, “That's not good enough, Travis. I mean, I sit in here all day, you know, at the helm (as you say), but I never get to steer the ship! I'm in charge here. I wanna be involved!”
Carlson jumps into micromanager mode. He says he needs to hear about every detail, no detail is too small. I personally want to approve everything that happens at this station…”
Lean managers aren't micromanagers, of course.
Travis starts to protest and Carlson says, “I'm the big guy!” And he goads Travis into sheepishly agreeing with him. Carlson tells Travis to go out there and tell “the troops” what's expected of them.
The Troops Are Upset
The next scene is a parade of everybody else coming in to tell Travis,
“You've gotta do something about Carlson!”
Fever says, “He's driving me crazy with his suggestions!” He adds that he took this job because he thought Carlson was “like me” in that he “doesn't quite know what's going on around him and likes it that way.”
Nessman is mad that Carlson wants to go out on assignment with him.
Flytrap says, “I thought Carlson was afraid of me, which was a good relationship… now he always want to know if need anything.” And the one suggestion from Carlson is pretty stereotypical and offensive (about Flytrap), unfortunately. I won't repeat it here.
What, you'd think that Carlson had a “Lean executive coach” or something. Now, the Lean leader shouldn't be throwing suggestions at employees constantly, but wanting to shadow an employee or asking if they need help… those are good things. But it can be disorienting to the employees who are used to their manager acting a certain way. It might not have been ideal, but it was known and it was probably comfortable.
“He's way out of line, Andy!” yells Nessman.
Carlson storms in. “Good, everybody's here! I was going to call a meeting.”
Travis tries to pull him away to have a word with him, but Carlson is all about sharing his ideas. OK, so he doesn't have a Lean executive coach, after all.
The “Greatest Promotion Idea of All Time”
The title of the episode (or your jogged memory) gives away that Carlson's idea involves turkeys. Carlson tells them this plan is big… but they don't need to know all the details. They'll get their assignments later.
Uh oh, classic non-Lean leadership here. He's not getting input from the team (and it's a diverse team with a lot of knowledge). He's going to give orders and expect “the troops” to follow them.
Everyone else looks concerned, but Tarlek goes into brown-noser mode and tells Carlson, “I'm with you, big guy!”
Carlson wants their “absolute cooperation… secrecy… and 20 live turkeys.”
Carlson is more concerned about secrecy and other stations learning about this… than he is about sharing details with the team or getting their input.
He wants to dictate a press release. He calls in his “assistant” Marlowe. He tells her to take dictation. “I don't take dictation.” Ah, she's sticking to her roles and responsibility and her standard work? He also asks for coffee, and she reminds him that they agreed she doesn't do that.
Dr. Johnny Fever announces it on the radio as the big “turkey giveaway.” Less Nessman is on the scene like a radio reporter from the era of the Hindenberg accident.
Nessman narrates the whole thing without us actually seeing that happen…
You hear a helicopter coming… out over a parking lot and over the gathered crowd…. circling. Looking for a place to land? No, something just came out of the back of the helicopter… “perhaps a skydiver.” More objects. No parachutes yet. Nessman finally realizes they are TURKEYS.
“They crashing to the earth right in front of our eyes! The turkeys are hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement!”
It's horrifying and hilarious at the same time (and no turkeys were harmed) — the video:
Angry calls come into the station from the Mayor and the Humane Society.
Carlson and Tarlek come back, apparently having been roughed up by the angry crowd.
“It should have worked!”
Ah, the non-Lean manager assumes that their plan is a good one. He didn't view it as a hypothesis that could have been tested in some way. He didn't get input from turkey experts.
The team is trying to be nice to him. Marlowe even offers to get him coffee.
“I thought it would work. I planned this thing to the last detail. It was perfect.”
Carlson blames Tarlek by asking, “Where'd you get those birds?” as if there was something wrong with them.
No amount of planning can save you when you've made a bad assumption. Doing small tests of change allows us to disprove a bad assumption. We often hear, “What assumption must be true?” in startup circles. Carlson didn't think that through… as he reveals in the final punchline (video):
“As God as my witness… I thought turkeys could fly!”
Season two brought an episode called “Carlson for President,” but it's really just about him running for City Council… but his TV debate makeup made him look comically orange. Interesting.
BTW, in that episode, it's said that Carlson is 48 years old. So, in season one, he was 47… and I'm 47 years old… whoa. I'll just throw that out there. He looks much older than 47, don't you think? Some research… actor Gordon Jump was born in 1932, so 1978 would make him 56, which seems more like it.
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I really enjoyed this blog and even found myself chuckling at a few of the things that you mentioned about the show. I really liked the comment about lean leaders should not be throwing suggestions at employees but instead offering the suggestions up for debate sounds like a better idea. As well as shadowing employees or asking for help is a solid way to not only bond with employees but to show you care about them and want them to succeed. Personally I would have tested the theory that turkeys can fly instead of just assuming because the worst thing that could happen happened to them because they didn’t question Carlson.
Thanks for reading and commenting, Christian. I think even better than a leader offering suggestions for debate is when a leader first tries to draw out suggestions from their employees. When the leader goes first, employees might fixate on that idea instead of coming up with their own ideas, which might be better.
Shadowing employees is great… but it has to be done tactfully and with respect. Instead of just showing up to shadow (which might make employees afraid), it’s important to have a conversation up front about the purpose of the shadowing (it’s to learn, not to judge). Even then, employees might be fearful until their leader really establishes trust with them…