Revolving Door Leadership

Revolving Door

Lean promoters, influencers, and professionals often attribute the lack of Lean management sustainability to frequent changes in top leadership. With an average CEO tenure of 7 years, and a median tenure of 5 years, it seems logical that efforts to establish a Lean business system — which minimally takes 3 to 5 years — would suffer due to the short tenure of CEOs. After all, the new CEO, if not promoted from within, will surely be mostly or fully aligned with classical management and view Lean management as the wrong way to think and to do things.

But there is also lots of churn at lower levels of leadership, with supervisors and managers in the job for 2 or 3 years before moving on. The people in those jobs are mostly doing what they are told to do. Their instructions come from their superiors who, if not deeply committed to Lean management, will train these management functionaries in classical management, replete with all of its preconceptions.

Is revolving door leadership at the top and management churn below really the problem that produces a lack of sustainability of Lean management? Let’s think more deeply about this problem.

If CEOs were in the job for an average of 15 years, there would be half the demand for their replacement compared to a tenure of 7 years. The revolving door leadership has the unintended consequence of creating a larger demand for CEOs. This creates a worse problem for Lean: It multiplies the numbers of leaders whose preconceptions align with classical management, not Lean management. The production of classical management CEOs thus far exceeds the rate of production of Lean CEOs. This will obviously result in less interest in Lean management among CEOs as a replacement for classical management.

CEOs will remain supportive of lower-level employees’ use of Lean tools because these are now deeply embedded into the practice of classical management. This is nothing new. Classical management has done what it has always done, which is neuter progressive management by proactively absorbing certain new tools to obtain incremental gains in business results.

There is a long history in progressive management of trying to convince CEOs that it is a path to higher profits. It has not been successful. The reality is that if CEOs were truly interested in higher profits and market share, shorter lead times, higher quality, lower costs, etc., then of course leaders would quickly leave classical management behind. But they don’t. That should tell everyone that something else is going on. CEOs remain fully committed to classical management because it maximizes their status, rights, and privileges. But that loud and clear message consistently falls of deaf ears in the Lean community.

Lean management remains mired in the past. It is in dire need of reframing from a business interest to a social interest. But let’s assume that such a reframing will not happen due to the desire by many in Lean world to protect vested interests and their own status, rights, and privileges. Lean, then, will maintain its focus on business and its focus on trying to develop people to become Lean CEOs.

The question becomes one of how to market Lean management given the constraints imposed by classical management, most of which relate to status, rights, and privileges? Lean world can keep doing in the future what has been done in the past, which is known to not work very well, or it can do something different.

The fact is that Lean management results in a diminution of top leaders’ status, rights, and privileges. It is only a small drop in status, rights, and privileges, but it is enough to cause great concern and one that inevitably leads to invoking the slippery slope argument. So the question of status, which looms far larger than people realize, must be addressed head-on. How do you do it?

High status, and especially higher status, is more valuable to CEOs than greater profits, increased market share, etc., of which they can find many ways to achieve that without Lean. It is strikingly noteworthy that in recent times, traditional signs and symbols of status have changed dramatically from even 20 to 30 years ago. For example, it is no longer a sign of status for top business leaders to dress well (e.g., Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk).

Lean management could be marketed or positioned as producing higher status by making a slight downgrading of one’s status a sign of status. Frame it so that going down a bit in status actually elevates CEOs status. And a byproduct of that is better results for business and society — without all the mess of CEOs having to engage in politics, social causes, environmental causes, and the many other things that either annoy CEOs or puts them into positions they do not want to be in.

And recognize the reality for most CEOs: They do not want to get their hands dirty. The genba? No thanks. So instead, position Lean management such that CEOs do not have to truly understand Lean or engage with its practice, but instead they merely have to accept Lean management and give their subordinates permission and freedom to carry out improvements using Lean principles and practices. I have seen that work before, so it is not impossible.

This would be an honest approach to “selling” Lean to the millions of CEOs worldwide, one that reflects reality and the rigid constraints imposed by the Institution of Leadership, and the System of Profound Privilege.

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