Lead from Front

Perhaps the biggest change, over the years that I notice is that the executives are too busy with the meetings. Whenever I contact some whom I knew during office hours these days, the normal reply nowadays is ‘Sahab is in meeting.” In my days, even my wife used to hear whenever she rang, “Sahab is on shop floor.” She had the biggest complaint against me that I never sat in office. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any cell phone at that time too.

In my entire career I couldn’t resist myself from being near to the place where the work went on and it paid good dividend too. I still remember when I took over as General Manager, Technical Services. I was on a round in sheet metal tooling manufacturing area. A group of workmen were busy in constructing a huge main jig for the assembly and welding of car body in white. I asked, “Do you know where it would be used?” The workmen confessed that they had not visited and seen the operation. How could they appreciate the need of the workers who would use the jig? They went, saw, and got many changes incorporated to make it acceptable and easy for the user workmen. It was only personal observation of the work that could help me in finding the real bottlenecks and providing the best solution.

Unfortunately, very few executives go out to see the work going on in thee field. Meetings and computers are the most popular means to control the progress. It is true for all the people involved in administration. And that is one of the reasons that the implementations are behind the schedule or the project on completion doesn’t provide the facility it was meant for.

An article ‘See for Yourself’ by Tim Laseter and Larry Laseter in ‘Strategy+Business’ recently referred to the culture of face-to-face, on-the-spot problem solving among executives and companies. The practice solves real customer problems, adopts ideas from others and makes them their own, collaborates with suppliers to eliminate waste, and engages the hearts and minds of their entire workforce

No company embraces the principle of firsthand observation more than the Toyota Motor Corporation. A philosophy of genchi genbutsu, literally translated as “go and see,” permeates the organization from the manufacturing floor to product development and even corporate staff functions. Toyota’s executive in charge of real estate visited every single property now in Toyota’s vast global portfolio of land and buildings before approving any of the investments.

The chief engineer for the 2004 Sierra minivan had never designed a vehicle specifically for the North American market, so he set out to drive in all 50 states and every province of Canada and Mexico. The insights he gained on his trip led him to redesign the popular minivan, making it bigger but easier to handle, at a price US$1,000 lower than the previous version. His observations of North American driving conditions led to enhancements of the turning radius and side-wind stability. The team also expanded the number of cup holders and storage pockets, pointless in the Japanese market where trips are shorter and riders rarely eat in the vehicle, but popular with Americans.

Consider the experience of a U.S. automotive supplier that exchanged benchmarking visits with a Japanese competitor in the late 1980s. Executives of the supplier clamored for spots on the trip to Japan, but because they had not spent sufficient time observing their own factories, the visit became a boondoggle that yielded limited competitive intelligence.

In contrast, the Japanese contingent, made up of experienced managers and engineers, arrived in the U.S. equipped with cameras and tape recorders. Though the Japanese immediately accepted the prohibition against cameras, they pleaded the case for tape recorders on the grounds that their English was limited and that they’d need to review the tapes to ensure that they fully understood the host’s commentary. Because the host was unable to speak Japanese and could not conduct the tour in the guests’ native tongue (the Japanese hosts had led their tour in English), he felt he had to accede to their request.

Moments into the tour, one of the guests asked about the cycle time and capacity of a key piece of proprietary equipment. The host refused to answer the question, but he realized that the Japanese would capture the necessary information by simply replaying their tapes and timing the sounds of the machine as it cycled through its processes. Worse yet, halfway through the tour the host discovered that the tour group included industrial artists who were busily sketching detailed perspective drawings of key pieces of equipment.

Honda engineers observed Disney Park’s guests to uncover problems in the parking lot. A couple of decades ago, the company’s car designers noted that people were struggling to lift awkward items such as baby strollers into and out of car trunks. Inspired to solve this problem, the team lowered the trunk opening to be flush with the car bumper. The lower opening is now a common feature among sedans, but in 1989, innovations such as this helped propel the Honda Accord to first place in U.S. unit sales.

Few executives today inspire their followers. The well-meaning leader who considers management an art equally applicable across any industry, be it aircraft engines or banking, can never match the leader who truly understands the business at hand and continually invests the time to learn more about it.

Given the unpopularity of observation, it’s no wonder that many employees view executives as Dilbert cartoon characters: clueless autocrats anxious to implement the next management fad as a “strategic initiative.”
Embracing firsthand observation as an integral part of your personal management style and embedding it in a company’s culture can break the fad cycle. It connects everyone to reality and forces a collaborative, problem-solving mind-set that can produce enduring results rather than just temporary improvement.

Computer-generated reports and meetings certainly play an important role in management, but the critical, visceral insight needed for effective leadership can come only from firsthand contact. The best executives get out of their offices and away from their computer screens to observe their frontline employees, competitors, customers, and suppliers on the job.

Please try to move out to see the work you are responsible for or on which you want to propose your idea. You will contribute better.

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