Back in the late ‘80’s I had a friendly relationship with some folks at the “JIT Office” at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). These were early adopters promoting a seemingly unpopular idea at this high tech giant. “We have little success implementing in our own backyard,” related John N., a manager in the JIT Office, “but we have a really good JIT provider in Ireland.”
“Why Ireland?” I asked. “Because,” John replied, “they’re far enough away from us that they are not so heavily influenced by the mother ship.”
Today, DEC has sunk beneath the waves, absorbed first by COMPAQ and then by HP (the only player in this market who did take JIT seriously.) But the general CEO (Cloistered Executive Officers) problem in large corporations is as bad now as in 1989. When Fredrick Taylor advanced the idea of division of labor, he no doubt did not think the divides might be oceans and continents. Nor would he likely have approved of the inner sanctums within sanctums that isolate top managers from the domains they rule.
Today as in 1989, distance from the home office remains a double-edged sword. On the one hand remoteness provides an opportunity to think outside the box. Concepts like Lean may fly beneath the corporate radar and flourish in pockets like DEC Ireland. On the other hand, these extremities may be arbitrarily squashed at any moment by the cloistered executive officers. Witness the fate of Wiremold after its purchase by French giant, Legrand. The story in 2000 was that Wiremold had been sold for its “lean technology”, but alas, the cloistered executives at Legrand killed the goose. They only wanted Wiremold’s distribution system, nothing more, and had no clue what they were dismantling as the firm sunk back into a traditional batch and queue mode. Eli Goldratt likens this situation to playing chess, with the game board in one room and the player in another unable to see the board.
And that other room doesn’t have to be a continent away; even one floor’s difference can create the damaging upstairs-downstairs environment. Where top executives are isolated from their operations, Lean implementations are tenuous and tactical at best. Updating Roger Milliken’s 1989 assessment of the three biggest obstacles to continuous improvement (top management, middle management and first-line supervision), the last two decades of TPS learning have brought many middle managers and supervisors into the light. Most top executives continue, however, to dictate from darkness, preferring to be cloistered.
I was recently in a discussion with a group of respected Lean advocates who were pondering the difficulty of engaging top executives in the lean transformation process.
“Top executives are a very busy group, under immense pressure to produce,” one colleague noted. “We need a compelling proposition to get their attention.” Heads nodded in agreement.
Another colleague added, “And they are uncomfortable unless they are in the company of their peers. It’s lonely at the top.” Again, heads nodded in agreement.
“So we need to have a separate venue for teaching and engaging top executives”, a third person offered.
“Doesn’t that sort of perpetuate the isolation problem we’ve just been discussing?” I asked.
“Perhaps,” someone responded, “but these folks will never participate if we don’t give them their own show.” Heads nodded in agreement.
What’s wrong with this picture? I know there are a few vocal lean advocates at the top, but how can we bring others out of the cloister and into the light? Let me hear your thoughts.
I see the landscape changing a little for top execs, at least a few that I know.