Tag Archives: management

Clearing the Bar

clearingthebarWhen I was fifty years younger and fifty pounds lighter I tried my hand at pole vaulting, a peculiar track and field event that involves running at full speed with a heavy pole (at that time still rigid aluminum) in hand, planting the pole at the last second with jarring force on the body, hurling your feet overhead at just the right moment in order to maximize upward momentum and finally, pushing off from the pole as it reaches vertical and squeaking past the crossbar without knocking it off.   A successful vault involves a great deal of technical and tactical knowledge as well as strict choreography and constant practice.  These things I learned from a little bit of book study and much trial and error.  In the end, the game is the best teacher.

But what about the coach’s role in developing my ability?

One afternoon as I was practicing, my coach happened by to watch my form.  I raced down the runway towards the bar, planted the pole and aimed my feet towards the heavens.  Unfortunately, they hit the crossbar on the way up.  With a clang the bar landed in the pit just before me.  What happened next has stuck in my mind as a humorous, but perhaps instructive anecdote:  I turned to my coach, who was standing just above me to the side of sawdust pit and said instinctively, “What did I do wrong, coach?”  He stared at me thoughtfully for a moment and then replied emphatically, “You didn’t clear the bar!”

I laughed out loud at his response and I still laugh today when I think about his answer.  Granted, there are many events in track and a coach will not likely be expert with all of them, but it seemed like he should have been able to provide greater insight.  He had watched my vault intently, but could offer no guidance how to improve it.

So what does this have to do with Lean?  How much should today’s managers-become-coaches know about the details of Lean?  I often hear them demur, “I don’t want to get into the weeds.”   Could that be an excuse or are the details really for someone else – perhaps a lean specialist – to understand.  Many years ago, a fellow manager, a good friend, offered to me what I think he thought was a compliment:  “Continuous improvement is really your thing, Bruce.  My thing is management.”  This seemed to me to be a perverse division of labor.   Granted, a manager cannot be omniscient or omnipresent, but when new learning is required, we should not think we are exempt from study.  Whether a track coach or a business coach, there is a technical side to our work, which “granular” as it might be, will make us better coaches if we understand it even modestly.   If we want to help our employees ‘clear the bar’, we’d best invest in our own learning first.

How is your coaching?  Are you above the fray, delegating Lean learning to someone else or are you personally developing your own skills in order to be a better coach?   Please share a comment.


BTW:   Sign up here for my next free webinar, “Tea Time with Toast Dude.”  The topic will be “Killer Measures”, traditional measures that can derail your lean implementation.  Hope you can join me on Tuesday, December 10 from 3:00 – 3:40 p.m. EST.  Read more & register.

Labor Dazed


A century after the first Labor Day celebration, during a factory re-organization, I discovered firsthand the meaning of “territorial imperative.” Removing organizational boundaries within the shop is one thing, but when you venture into the ‘professional’ parts of the company that’s challenging the natural order!  One office manager, call him Tom, adamantly opposed the idea of moving his department to the floor, next to his internal customer.  Tom had been a good manager and dependable ally during early improvements to the factory floor, but now that his department was directly impacted, he acted as though they were being sucked into a vortex of lesser status.   In a move to provide better internal communication and customer service, factory overhead departments had all been relocated the factory floor. The privacy and seclusion of offices was replaced by open spaces, desks with no cubicles, departments with no walls, and a company receptionist positioned on a raised platform, high enough that she could tell at a glance if someone what at his desk or bench to take an incoming call.  We told our customers “When you call our factory, you’re really calling the factory!”    

While both the internal customer (the factory) and our external customers appreciated the improved service derived from this open concept, Tom had a nagging concern:  “Both my parents worked in a factory their entire lives in order to send me to college and get my masters degree so I wouldn’t have to work in a factory.  This just feels wrong to me.”  I recall getting a bit defensive and suggesting to Tom, “Well I’m sure there are still plenty of companies around who’ll be looking for a persons in three-piece suits.”  I should have been more respectful.  Problem was (and still is) that somewhere along the way from 1894 to 1994, making things had become unimportant – trivialized by visionaries who predicted three-day workweeks.     

So much has changed since the first official Labor Day in 1894 when nearly everybody in the work force would have been classified direct labor.  Today the ratio between direct and indirect labor is somewhere in the 1:4 range.  To be sure, technological changes have effected a good deal of this change if not all for the better.  Still, the trivialization of the frontline worker – the one for whom this holiday was established – continues unabated, increasingly isolating them from those indirect, supposed support services.  In many cases the Gemba is no longer even onshore.   

I have a lighthearted modest proposal for future Labor Days: Let’s make them only for non-exempt employees.  They can have the barbeques; the rest of us professionals can go to work.  

Happy Labor Day! 



A couple reminders: 
My next free webinar, “Tea Time with the Toast Dude”, entitled Managing Up (click to sign up) is coming up Tuesday, September 10 at 3:00 p.m.  I’ve had many requests to weigh in on this subject.  And one lucky participant will win a free registration to our Northeast Region Shingo Conference in Hyannis, MA, September 24-25.  Time is drawing near for our conference.  Don’t miss it!