Go See. Ask Why. Show Respect.

In 2009 Google launched “Project Oxygen.” You probably haven’t heard of it, because it’s not a product. It’s Google’s quest to build a better boss.

In typical Google fashion, the company gathered enough data on managerial performance to float a battleship. They followed up with interviews, coded feedback, and ranked results in order of importance. What they found is music to any lean manager’s ears. Here’s how the NYTimes describes it:

Mr. Bock’s group found that technical expertise — the ability, say, to write computer code in your sleep — ranked dead last among Google’s big eight [drivers of managerial excellence]. What employees valued most were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, who helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees’ lives and careers.

“In the Google context, we’d always believed that to be a manager, particularly on the engineering side, you need to be as deep or deeper a technical expert than the people who work for you,” Mr. Bock says. “It turns out that that’s absolutely the least important thing. It’s important, but pales in comparison. Much more important is just making that connection and being accessible.”

John Shook over at the Lean Enterprise Institute has been talking about this for awhile now (most recently here). It seems so simple, doesn’t it? Go see. Ask why. Show respect.

And yet.

Even assuming that your managerial team is staffed by well-meaning people and not those who think that Mein Kampf is the sine qua non for leadership lessons, this simple activity is surprisingly difficult, for two reasons.

First, finding time to “go see” is absurdly hard. Managers and executives spend so much time cooped up in conference rooms that you’d think they were mapping the human genome, not setting the sales price for a new candy bar. Spending six hours a day stifling hypnagogic jerks in a Powerpoint-induced stupor isn’t exactly a solid foundation for a “go see” culture.

Second, we want to help. We want to solve problems. And, frankly, we like demonstrating our smarts. But in providing answers, we undermine people’s intellectual development and corrode their self-esteem, just as surely as salt air rusts the supports on a bridge. People need to stretch themselves and solve their own problems — with guidance and instruction, yes, but largely on their own. Otherwise they neither develop the capacity for learning nor the pride of accomplishment.

Your company may not be like Google (or even aspire to be like it), but good management transcends industries and idiosyncratic corporate culture. In lean terms, go see. Ask why. Show respect. In generic terms, make yourself available. Ask questions. Take an interest.

It’s really not that hard. And hey, Google has quantitative proof that it works.

5 thoughts on “Go See. Ask Why. Show Respect.

  1. Excellent blog.
    This is the backbone of Toyota Way management principles.
    Has been for many years.
    Strange it seems to be some kind of secret formula and that Google needed all this data to realise it.
    The REALLY difficult achievement is for Lean Consultants, Change Managers etc to effect these cultural changes SUSTAINABLY.
    Practicing Lean tools and teachniques is one thing, this is completely another level.
    It’s vital to get managers to embrace “Go see. Ask why. Show respect.” and establish Top-Down/Bottom-Up management.

  2. Stephen,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Without getting too caught up in lean jargon, managers and execs should make “go see/ask why/show respect” a focal point of their standard work. And yet, it’s often sacrificed because they’re “too busy.”

    I think the key problem is that people feel that they’re too busy to do this. They’re confusing motion with action, whipping themselves into a frenzy while missing out on the opportunity to make substantive improvements. And the instant response environment fomented by email, IM, etc. makes this habit even tougher to break.

  3. Hi Dan,

    You’re right, it’s very tough for Managers in these “information overload” days we live and work in.
    I got around this to some extent by scheduling diary time for “Go Look See” and scheduling 1 to 1′s with my team.
    Even then, sometimes other “stuff” would get in the way.

  4. (Results like that may help invalidate Putt’s Law)

    Managers exist to serve their staff. Not to do the work their staff does, but to remove any obstacle blocking their staff’s work. When they do this they gain loyalty, results and most importantly the truth about why things break. And the truth is the best tool to get a project back on track.

  5. Adamo,

    Even before I learned about lean, I felt that org charts are drawn upside down. The highest point in an organization is the front-line staff. The person at the bottom is the CEO, whose job it is to serve everyone above him.

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