CEOs, Drugs, and Progress

The Lean community is forever upset with CEOs for being short-term thinkers and for their steadfast devotion to classical management. They hope for CEOs to become long-term thinkers. Of course, reality dictates that CEOs have to think short-, mid-, and long-term, though available evidence or one’s cognitive biases gives the appearance that their thinking is heavily weighted towards the short-term. Regardless, this is a feature (or bug) inherent to business because circumstances change daily in competitive business environments, and CEOs must respond to that (though sometimes they do not).

The Lean community is focused on the wrong type of thinking. The focus should instead be on the longevity of the company. Meaning, running the company in such a way that it can serve its customers for several decades, if not centuries. That would alter executive thinking and decision-making in meaningful ways. However, even with that framing, CEOs must still make decisions that fall into short-, mid-, and long-term thinking categories. And focusing on longevity will also be problematic because in American-style capitalism, companies are mere properties to be bought and sold. So, longevity is not a concern for most CEOs.

Does the timeframe for CEO thinking really matter? Yes and no. No, for classically managed businesses, and maybe for CEOs who want to transition to Lean management. It depends on what current and future CEOs want to do. The “Constancy of Purpose” that W. Edwards Deming spoke about is voluntary, neither a custom nor a legal requirement. Consequently, purpose changes from one CEO to the next, for better or worse. Desirable as constancy of purpose may be, it is not relevant to most CEOs.

CEOs Drugs Progress

One can continue this line of futile concern over short-term thinking and constancy of purpose, or one can dig deeper to understand what is really going on. By doing the latter, Lean professionals can more accurately target the source of their displeasure and, if motivated to do so (unlikely in my view), they can think of different countermeasures to try. So let’s think more deeply about what is really going on.

The human body is amazing in that it produces drugs that make us feel better. The brain has a reward system that motivates people to seek rewarding stimuli that result in the release of these four neurotransmitters:

  • Dopamine – Motivation, reward, pleasure
  • Serotonin – Feelings of well-being, happiness, contentment
  • Oxytocin – Bonding, trust, social interaction
  • Endorphins – Pain relief, mood elevation

The neurotransmitters give us a sense of pleasure and reward us such that we seek to maintain our environment or repeat the behaviors and competencies that produced them. If you are a CEO, what activates these neurotransmitters? What are the precursors to the brains’ drug manufacturing process?

The CEO, as well as managers below them, are high in status relative to office and shop floor workers, and others in the general population of society. Being high in status confers certain rights and privileges. Take all three together — status, rights, and privileges — and you have the precursors necessary to produce the drugs that make leaders feel good about themselves and their work. Why? In part because they can do whatever they want, to varying degrees depending upon one’s status (i.e., little need to “walk the talk”). That feeling of relative freedom can be intoxicating on a sustained basis. And society readily approves of those who are high in status to direct other people to do things. Having power over people is also intoxicating.

Add to that the secular or religious spirituality that is intrinsic to leaders’ work, or which they consciously assign to their work, and that results in a “higher calling,” perhaps a destiny, that surely makes leaders feel good about themselves and their work. Add to that the ability to organize the work area both physically and in the structure, content, and output of conversations. That means leaders are able to produce the aesthetic environments that are most pleasing to them.

Add to that leaders’ understanding of business, leadership, and management as being the same as almost everyone else in the world, in the form of classical management and neoclassical economics, you have great confidence in what you are doing and why you are doing it. Confidence makes you feel good. And as an ardent proponent of classical management, you never see any need to challenge your preconceptions. The result is that you feel good about yourself, your decisions, and your work. Feeling good about one’s work suggests being successful due to possessing the requisite skills and capabilities, which also makes you feel good. And finally, as leaders get things done in their work, they generate accomplishments that they are proud of which also makes them feel good.

In sum, the job of the CEO, and other managers below them, exist in circumstances and environments that produce an abundance of stimuli that generate the drugs that make them feel better. Most leaders are, essentially, high on classical management. Why, then, would any CEO want to abandon classical management and transition to Lean management?

From the perspective of leaders long habituated in classical management, Lean is not seen as a better system of management. In fact, it is almost everything they dislike. CEOs either sense or overtly recognize that Lean will reduce their status, rights, and privileges; it will generate an unreasonable demand for a new and unfamiliar form of secular spirituality; it will produce uncomfortable new physical and human relationship aesthetics; it creates an absurd demand for a total reworking of one’s preconceptions; and it requires leaders to change how they do their job from however they feel like doing it to the exacting work of highly skilled craftspersons dedicated to continuously improving their workmanship.

Most CEOs’ judgment will be that there is no way they can get high on Lean management. And they may be right, because there is nothing comparable to classical management. (Though, authoritarianism is the next level up, but it induces a perpetual drug overdose). They anticipate large reductions in the neurotransmitters — dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins — that have given them so much pleasure for so many years. Given Lean’s unattractiveness, leaders see no reason to alter the status quo, thus halting progress. Classical management works — it has had a successful track-record for nearly 300 years — and it gets the job done. They see no reason to even try Lean, and nobody can convince them that it is more satisfying than classical management. For most CEOs, Lean is nothing more than “tools for workers’ toolbox,” and that’s good enough.

What I have described in previous paragraphs is the nexus of how the brain and the mind function together. The brain and mind are not the same thing. The brain is a physical organ made up of billions of neurons that controls our body’s function. The mind is abstract in that it cannot be seen or touched, yet it is the conscious and unconscious processes that account for our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The mind is what gives awareness of ourselves and our surroundings, and is a product of our brain’s activity based on our experiences.

It has become popular in recent years to talk about brain science and how understanding it creates the opportunity to improve leadership, corporate cultures, and work experiences. But it avoids discussion of how the mind works and how it excludes or limits certain changes to one’s environment. In a recent comment to a LinkedIn post on this subject, I said:

While leaders have ‘limited understanding of human brain function’ they have unlimited understanding of the status, rights, and privileges that they wish to preserve. Lean infringes on that. Therefore, no deal. They do not see Lean as an improvement in management practice. Lean is everything most leaders do not want because it corrupts classical management. That could change someday, of course.

The importance of preconceptions, a function of the mind more than the brain, cannot be overstated. “Preconception” are preconceived opinions or ideas formed prior to experience in the absence of reasoning. Scores of interconnected preconceptions are formed early in one’s life (ages 0 to 21) that establish the baseline of one’s neurotransmitter reward system.

For example, the status, rights, and privileges preconceptions are formed in early childhood, leading most people to seek those later in life at work, at home, among friends, or from material possessions. The same is true for secular or religious spirituality, aesthetic judgments, and perceptions of what constitutes acceptable work. All of these are formed early in one’s life experiences, long before becoming CEO. Employment rapidly acculturates employees to accept prevailing standards of status, rights, and privileges, secular or religious spirituality, and aesthetic judgments of work environments and hierarchical and social relationships.

Efforts to change the foundation of CEOs neurotransmitter reward system is, as we all know, very difficult. One can bring Lean management to CEOs by presenting to them a mountain of facts about how it is superior to classical management and still get nowhere. Appeals to the brain do not usually register.

The small number of CEOs who over the last 35 years made the decision to fully embrace Lean management did so more from the mind than the brain — the realm of making a conscious personal decision to challenge their brain’s reward system by engaging in new sources of stimuli such as kaizen. In other words, leaders have to come to Lean. The question is, what circumstances will initiate a flood of CEOs coming to Lean rather than the trickle of CEOs that have done that?

If you want to learn more about leadership in the contexts of status, rights, and privileges, secular spirituality, aesthetics, preconceptions, and workmanship, read these books:

Six Books 2
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