The C-Suite Double Standard


When I was at the AME Conference in Dallas a couple of months ago, I started noticing what I call the C-suite double standard: leaders and executives who are ferocious about improving manufacturing processes and eliminating waste, but who passively accept waste in their office operations and individual work. Do any of these hit home?

On the shop floor: Looking for a tool is waste. In the C-suite: looking for information is part of work. We’d never accept a skilled machinist spending time looking for tools. That’s classic waste, and we’d embark on a 5S program to ensure that the worker has the tools he needs, when he needs them, in order to do his job. In the C-suite though? Who hasn’t spent 2, 3, 5 minutes—or more— looking for important information in piles of paper or long email strings? If we’re so passionate about making sure that the machinist can deploy his skills without wasting time, why aren’t we equally passionate about making sure that the VP of Marketing can do the same?

On the shop floor: Do everything possible to ensure that people can work without interruption. In the C-suite: Interruptions are so commonplace that they’re hardly even recognized. A friend of mine tells me that Toyota has andon cords hanging everywhere so that workers can get help when there’s a problem, but the company does everything possible to protect the workers from interruptions. He says it’s remarkable how hard the company works to shield them from anything that would break their focus. But between open door policies and a lack of forethought, people in the office suffer an interruption every 11 minutes, with serious consequences for the quality and efficiency of their work.

On the shop floor: Standard work is the foundation for improvement. In the C-suite: Standard what? Production workers continually create and refine their standard work processes to improve quality and safety, reduce variation, and lay the foundation for improvement. C-suite workers run from fire to fire, have no cadence or structure to their day/week, and allow themselves to be driven by external forces—often at the expense of getting to the gemba, helping people develop problem solving skills, and focusing on strategic issues.

On the shop floor: Everyone is on the lookout for the waste of waiting. In the C-suite: On-time meetings are a joke. If materials, parts, and supplies aren’t delivered on time and workers are forced to wait, the team is expected to do a 5 Why (or A3) analysis to understand and eliminate the problem. Everyone understands the waste of waiting, and uses that problem as an opportunity to improve. Now, consider meetings in the C-suite. People wait all the time for the whole group to arrive and meetings to start. This colossal waste of time and resources is viewed as natural and inevitable as a John Boehner crying, or the Cubs missing the playoffs. Even worse: executives actively create this condition by scheduling meetings back-to-back without a break to travel between rooms/floors/buildings—and unless they’ve unlocked the secret to teleportation, that’s a recipe for having people sitting around a conference table playing Angry Birds on their phones.

On the shop floor: Machines and production lines have a finite capacity. Avoid over-burdening. In the C-suite: "I need this tomorrow morning!" People accept that machines have finite production capacity. You can’t get 100 parts an hour out of a machine that can only make 70 parts per hour. Even trying to operate an assembly line at 100% capacity guarantees a longer cycle time, due to the problems that inevitably occur. But in the C-suite, there’s no hesitation to overload people: ridiculous deadlines (“I need this in an hour!”) due to lousy planning and scheduling are rife. Sometimes there are emergencies, of course, but asking people to operate this way is a recipe for slower response in the long run.

On the shop floor: Improving our processes is essential to our long-term success. In the C-suite: This is the way it's always been done. Annual performance reviews. Enough said.

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