Getting off the fire truck.

The Lean Enterprise Institute has released a new DVD, “Womack on Lean Management.” I haven’t watched it yet, but the description alone really got my attention:

“When you go in and spend a day with managers and observe what they are doing – even up close to the top – they are busy talking to the customer about things gone wrong, they are busy talking to the supplier about things gone wrong, they are busy talking to operations or design about things gone wrong. Complete instability.

“As a result, the main work of many managers at many levels in companies using ‘modern management’ systems is constant firefighting.”

This really hit home for me. I don’t deal with the seriously tough problems that so many lean consultants grapple with, like getting complicated manufacturing or service value streams straightened out. Or, as Jim would say, creating stability in core processes. My work is (in some ways) much simpler: just getting people to spend time on what’s actually important to their customers and their company.

But when I see the amount of time squandered on activities that create no value at all, I wonder whether we should first try to create stability in single person processes — i.e., the stuff that forms the core of value-added managerial work.

I mean, what if directors, managers, and supervisors created stability in the way that they managed their own work? What if they had regular trips to the gemba and regular, repeatable, consistent mentoring? What if they stopped bowing to the holy god of the inbox? What if they stopped kneeling before the almighty 60 minute meeting? What if they applied visual management techniques to their own use of time to help ensure that they actually spent time on the really important stuff?

What if they got off the fire truck for awhile and tried to solve the problems in their own work processes?

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5 Responses

  1. Pierre Khawand says:

    Great to read your insights Dan. This topic resonates really well with what I have been evangelizing. I recently wrote about how managers interrupt their staff and prevents them from delivering the very results they asked them to deliver. Let me know if you want more info.

  2. Dan says:


    Thanks for the feedback. Glad to know I’m not the only one shouting into the wilderness!

  3. Timesheet Tracker says:

    I agree with most of what you have to say…however if managers do not resolve the issues that come up on a daily basis, how can they ensure the smooth running of the business.. Isn’t it necessary that you keep check on the small stuff, before it snowballs into something big?

  4. Timesheet Tracker:

    You’re right: there must be a balance between regularly checking on the small stuff, and only attending to the major issues. Finding that sweet spot isn’t easy, and I’d be loathe to provide some sort of pat answer. But I do know that *most* managers err — significantly — in the other direction, so that their days are filled with nothing but minutiae.

    Perhaps the key is to develop the problem solving capacity of the entire company, so that there are fewer fires to put out?

  5. willo says:

    Dan, your new revamped site looks awesome! :)

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