Why CEOs Won’t Participate in Kaizen

CEO to Genba 1

Getting CEOs to go to the genba and have meaningful engagements there has proven to be difficult. The simple reason is that the genba is someone else’s job to tend to, from the vice president of operations to the supervisor. There are many people to do that, so from most CEOs’ perspective there is no need to get involved. They have other, more important things to do.

What is even more difficult to do is to get CEOs to participate in kaizen. Not only do they not like to go to the genba, they do not like to get their hands dirty. And they have a great fear of making a fool of themselves in front of others as they learn about the genba, the workers, and the processes, because that would degrade their status. But there is more to it than that.

Top leaders have particular ways of thinking about people, processes, and business that are rooted in their unique, time-transcendent culture, which I characterized some years ago as the Institution of Leadership and the System of Profound Privilege. The inculcation of this culture occurs over time as future CEOs are promoted from one level to the next, where they learn and adopt the preconceptions and thinking of their superiors. This is a necessary process if they are to become CEO. Those who do not conform (acquiesce) to the culture of this exclusive social group will not make it to the top.

Let’s say a CEO has agreed to contract with kaizen consultants to improve processes in the shop and office. And let’s also say that the CEO is curious as to what their money is buying (notice the personal possessive form of money) and decides to attend the first kaizen close-out meetings on Friday morning starting at 11 am. The CEO will see three to seven kaizen teams report-out their results. If the kaizens were facilitated correctly, each team will have made huge improvements — big reductions in lead-time, big increases in quality, big reductions costs, and big improvements in safety and ergonomics.

The CEO is outwardly pleased with what he or she sees, smiles, applauds, congratulates the kaizen team, thanks the sensei, and then heads back to their office while everyone else goes to lunch together. But what is really going on inside the mind of the CEO?

This CEO, like most, will be deeply annoyed at the great results that were achieved with kaizen. Why? Because it proves what the CEO had suspected all along. The CEO says to himself:

I caught them! The workers aren’t doing their jobs, just as I thought! What am I paying these people for? They’re not good at their jobs. They have been here for years and never made these kinds of improvements. They should have, because that’s what I am paying them to do. It’s almost like they’ve been stealing from the company; stealing from me!

The CEOs cultural biases have been confirmed. Notice how the CEO personalizes their perceived loss. Most CEOs view kaizen as something workers should do because, unlike the CEO, workers do not know how to do a good job. The CEO, of course, does not understand how they limit (often severely) workers’ ability to do a good job, one that includes the creativity and innovation that kaizen fosters.

Most CEOs have archaic cultural hallucinations about workers. That is part of the social fabric of their culture, despite the positive things they may say publicly about workers. The Institution of Leadership and the System of Profound Privilege requires leaders to think about shop and office workers — any non-executive subordinate, really — en masse in this narrow, fixed, and disapproving way:

  1. Lazy
  2. Dishonest
  3. Cheating and stealing
  4. Untrustworthy
  5. Lacking skills
  6. Lacking judgment
  7. Not creative
  8. Not innovative
  9. Unethical
  10. Unreliable
  11. Incompetent
  12. Reckless
  13. Uninspired
  14. Inflexible
  15. Careless
  16. Imprudent
  17. Deceptive
  18. Devious
  19. Unproductive
  20. Inept
  21. Reckless
  22. Uncouth
  23. Incurious
  24. Mendacious
  25. Destructive

Workers are guilty of these things until proven otherwise. Deming’s “Seven Deadly Diseases of Management”? Forget about it. To most CEOs, these 25 items are the real deadly diseases of management. People are the problem. That’s why CEOs are always on the lookout for new technologies that they can purchase to replace workers (i.e., “increase productivity,” in CEO speak).

Does any person in the company fit the above lengthy description? Sure, maybe one in one-thousand (0.1 percent), likely far fewer, but certainly not as many people as the CEO thinks. From the CEOs perspective, every employee meets at least one of the 25 criteria, so, as expected, the CEO is right after all!

The result of this archaic cultural hallucination is that workers must be given narrow tasks, closely monitored, and held accountable (blamed) for bad results, even if the causes of bad results are far outside their realm of control.

Of course, there are the heroic workers whom CEOs valorize for getting the job done the way everyone else should if they were truly committed, loyal to the company (CEO), and earning their pay. Privately, the CEO would rather have many more heroes (firefighters) and no kaizen. Rewarding a lot of heroes with $200 gift cards is much less expensive than hiring kaizen consultants for 10 or 20 or more weeks per year. But, alas, there is a perpetual shortage of heroes. And the damn education system always fails to produce more heroes. It can’t even produce people with good communication and teamwork skills!

So, the CEO extends the contract of the kaizen consultant again and again, which is their way of forcing workers to do the job that the CEO thinks they should be doing all along. But workers can sense that the CEO is disingenuous and has no real affection for kaizen, in large part because he or she refuses to participate in kaizen. The CEO grinds their teeth each time they approve the kaizen consultant’s invoice, frustrated at having to pay them so much to get people to do the job that they are paid to do.

How far from reality do you think this story is? Sure, it will vary from one CEO to another, but the contours are more or less on target. What this story exposes is the large gap that exists between CEOs’ culture-driven understanding of workers and why workers do the job the way they do. Generally, there will be no attempt by CEOs to close that gap — and it is the CEOs job, not workers job, to close the gap — preferring instead to preserve the archaic cultural hallucinations of an exclusive social group. Their participation in kaizen would close the gap, but doing so risks the CEOs standing among their peers. They would have a lot of unpleasant explaining to do, which they surely want to avoid.

If you were a CEO, would you do anything different? If yes, how can you be sure when you have not undergone the steady conditioning to conform to the social group? Most people will readily capitulate given the allure of high status, sumptuous rights and privileges, power, influence, opportunities, expanded social network, and wealth. Why would you be any different?

Surely you are wondering, “How do I get my CEO to participate in kaizen?” If you ask Google’s Gemini AI that question, you get all the usual answers that thousands of people have tried many times before with little success. So that’s no help. The answer is buried in leaders’ preconceptions and their lack of understanding of the concept of workmanship as it applies to leaders at all levels, from supervisor to CEO.

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