Ice Cube Tray Leadership

You may be old enough to remember the lever-release aluminum ice cube tray. It was invented by Edward H. Roberts, a design engineer at General Electric, in the mid-1940s. The trays were great in their day and remained in use into the 1970s (for those who had old refrigerators). The lever-release ice cube trays were difficult to use. They required a lot of hand and arm strength to crack the ice and free the cubes.

Ice Tray Mgmt 1

For some 30 years, people struggled with lever-release ice cube trays. The trays were eventually replaced with plastic trays and later automatic ice-makers. And today, if one does not have an automatic ice maker, they would buy silicone ice trays. The path of ice cube invention has been to make it easier to get ice cubes, either automatically or by using a new material (silicone) to make it easier to remove ice cubes from the tray.

The longevity of the lever-release ice cube trays, and the associated struggle to use them, reminds me of how leadership has long made it a struggle for people to get the job done. The ways in which most leaders lead today, from supervisor to CEO, have roots that go back to ancient times. The design of leadership is unchanged in many important ways.

We are led to believe that leaders, especially top leaders, have a “magic touch,” as the words on the ice cube tray lever says in the image above. But in reality, we are misled. Like the lever-release ice cube tray, there is no magic touch. Most leaders lead in ways that make people struggle, in part because of the continuous piling-on of requirements, non-essential tasks, organizational politics, and bureaucracy. Technology is no help under such conditions. So it is no surprise that productivity has declined despite the increasing prevalence of varied labor-saving technologies.

Leadership does not follow a path of invention to make it easier for workers to get the job done. The path of leadership invention has long been opposite to that; to make it evermore difficult for salaried and hourly employees. This happens because leaders’ interests in maintaining and expanding their status, rights, privileges, and protections is much more important than reducing and eliminating the struggles that lower-status people endure to get the job done.

The objective of kaizen is to make work easier so that people struggle less or not at all. Kaizen is fundamental to the development and continuing evolution of TPS and the Toyota Way. Because of ever-changing conditions, kaizen must always be practiced to eliminate people’s struggles.

Yet, if we care to understand and accept the viewpoint of 170 or so generations of leaders dating back to the time of ancient Egypt, we can begin to better understand why the path of invention for leadership does not align with making it easier for workers to get the job done. This suggests that we must redirect the path of leadership invention.

What we have learned from 51 years of TPS and 36 years of Lean is that these are incapable of redirecting the path of leadership invention. Sure, there have been some notable “Lean transformations” and admirable “Lean CEOs.” But let’s be honest, none have lasted more than 20 years and, more importantly, none have influenced the larger community of CEOs, past or present. A reasonable conclusion is that paths of invention outside the realm of progressive management must be thoroughly explored.

As a group, do Lean promoters and professionals have the curiosity and determination to do this? Thus far, there is no indication that they do. They gamble that luck will produce the occasional “Lean transformation” and associated “Lean CEO.” These rare achievements are heralded as proof that the status quo can be broken. But, in fact, they just divert attention away from the actual problem.

The old lever-release ice cube tray is a reminder that the path of invention does not always bend towards making work easier. That is particularly true with leadership whose path of invention bends towards making work harder for others.

Sometimes, achieving the desired result means that you must approach the problem from a different direction. That means abandoning the preconceptions that there is one best way to change the path of leadership invention. It also means you must learn many new things outside the realm of Lean.

NOTE: Let’s face it: you know enough about Lean management. But you do not know enough about why Lean has consistently failed to gain traction among generations of CEOs. That subject is the information deficit that you can easily correct if you desire to do so.

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