Imagine this modern twist on the old story of Rip van Winkle.
The very weird day of “Kip” van Winkle, senior executive:
It took Kip most of breakfast to fully wake up. After all, 50 years asleep is a rather long time, but he didn’t know that yet. The last he could remember was tossing and turning in bed after a particularly stressful day at the office – committee meetings, customer problems, cheap imports flooding the market. He recalled taking a couple of sleeping tablets and now felt unusually groggy.
Showered, shaved and dressed, his mind was on the coming business day as he took the subway to work. Looking around, something didn’t seem quite right – things looked and felt different, but sleepy commuters were still going to work, just as always, so he thought nothing of it –must still be the lingering after effects of the sleeping tablets. The elevators were the same, so he felt as sense of relief as he crowded in with the others. It was when the doors opened onto the executive floor of ACME Industries that he realized something was terribly wrong! This was definitely not his sleepy old company.
Everywhere people were running about in what seemed like a frantic pace. Was there a disaster or something, he wondered? The staff at ACME never moved this fast, not even when the boss called. And many of them were talking into strange-looking miniature devices held up to one ear – and the weird ringing sounds – what happened to the familiar Ma Bell ring tone?
He paused at the desk of one of the secretaries and noticed a most bizarre looking typewriter – she was typing words onto a miniature television screen, not on paper. And he couldn’t see any carbons. He stood and watched as one of the executive assistants stared into her little screen and flipped through what looked like a vast library with just a few key strokes. Access to unlimited information at the touch of a button – what the hell was going on?
Everywhere Kip turned he felt out-of-place – strange, unable to comprehend the changes that had overcome his workplace – the speed of activity, information access, and instant communications while you move about. Completely disoriented, he moved towards the board room, realizing it was time for the senior staff meeting, his head still buzzing.
He entered just after the meeting had gotten underway. He paused, looked around, listened for a moment, and felt instantly at ease. Everything was the same – at least things hadn’t changed at the top!
Rethinking the Role of the Senior Team
Ever since the publication of “In Search of Excellence” in 1982 a growing tidal wave of business improvement tools and techniques have helped businesses around the globe become more productive. Such tools and techniques as Reengineering, EVA, Design-to-Manufacture, Six Sigma, Lean, Balanced Scorecard, supply-chain integration, strategic outsourcing and other tools have reduced costs, improved productivity and helped capture market share. In addition, advances in technology (email, video-conferencing, personal computing, and of course the internet) have dramatically improved the speed and velocity of business. Together these advances have dramatically changed the lives and work practices of nearly every group and function inside a company. Except one – the senior leadership team.
This group, arguably the most influential in the company has remained largely outside the focus and pressure on process improvement. Their work practices remain much the same as they were 50 or more years ago (aside from email, teleconferencing and other technology related speed enablers – and we now know that speed, without redesigning work processes can led to reduced efficiency, increased stress and even process breakdown).
Not only are the work practices and processes of the senior team largely unchanged, in most companies they are largely unmapped, undefined and poorly standardized. In addition, the senior leadership team is usually seen as immune (by themselves and others) from any business improvement process. Traditionally the senior team and its work has been seen as separate, outside of and removed from the fundamental work processes that go on inside the business.
I take the opposite view. The work and behaviour of the senior leadership team has a dramatic impact on overall company performance in numerous ways and when they chose not to use process improvement tools on their own collective activities, the work of the senior team can actually destroy economic value through redundant, inefficient and time-consuming activities (think about meetings), what is commonly known as waste. And waste at the top tends to have a magnifying effect on those below.
What if we looked at the work of the senior team as a “business process”? First of all, what is the work of the senior team? What are their real outputs? What if we used process improvement techniques, like lean sigma, 5S, visual metrics, and feedback loops, to improve the work of the senior team?
Here are some of the questions I am thinking about:
- What is the real work of the senior team?
- How do they create value?
- In what ways can they actually destroy value (without knowing it)?
- How can the senior team be more productive and ensure greater business success?
- Is there a better way to organize and lead?
I think there is. Check out some of these ideas in FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution.
John R Childress
See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014.