Why There Are So Few Lean CEOs

The Holy Grail of the Lean movement is Lean CEOs, which I will define here as leaders who are willing to abandon classical management and replace it with Lean management; willing to lead a so-called Lean transformation. They are eager to take on the challenge that, as Art Byrne says, “everything must change.” “Everything” means corporate purpose, business strategy, people, processes, metrics, worker and machine layouts, relationships with customers, suppliers, and investors — everything.

For 35 years the Lean movement has been on a united quest to find these elusive creatures. The principal mechanisms for doing this are through conferences, books, articles, consulting, and training — all very heavy on the upside of Lean with little or no mention of the many difficulties that will be encountered. Lean CEOs do exist, but not nearly in the abundance that people hoped for when Lean got started four decades ago. That begs the question, why are some people motivated to become Lean CEOs and most others are not?

There is an invisible barrier, both tall and thick, to becoming a Lean CEO: Status. Some people are willing to challenge that barrier, others are not. Lean CEOs must be willing to suffer the small diminutions in the status, rights, and privileges that they previously earned under classical management. Lean CEOs are on a mission that is far more important than elevating their status within the company. It includes things like doing a better job of satisfying customers, improving business results, growth, interest in developing themselves and others in new ways, and exploring the unknown.

Most CEOs think they have to act like CEOs when they are at work. I doing so, they isolate themselves from workers, avoid the genba, act and speak in imperial (obscure and confusing) ways, and fraternize with other very important people; business leaders, politicians, university presidents, successful entrepreneurs, celebrities, etc. Lacking humility and curiosity, these CEOs never want to get their hands dirty and are annoyed and offended when problems arise from lower levels that require their attention. These CEOs act the same way when they socialize outside of work. Their high status is always on display, and so they are “single status CEOs.”

Single Dual Status 4

In contrast, Lean CEOs do not think they have to act like CEOs at work. They are humble and act like facilitators and helpers at work, in addition to their duties as CEO. Everyone in the company knows who is the CEO, so Lean CEOs see no need to act like one when they are at work. Instead, Lean CEOs are always willing to engage with workers and get their hands dirty making improvements. They are not annoyed and offended when problems occur that require their attention because they see these as opportunities to learn, develop themselves, train and develop others, gain new capabilities (know-how), and improve. Outside of work, they too fraternize with other very important people; business leaders, politicians, university presidents, successful entrepreneurs, celebrities, etc. Their high status is on display only outside of work, and so they are “dual status CEOs.”

And that, dual status, is the critical difference that makes a Lean CEO. Unfortunately, out of the tens of millions of CEOs worldwide, only a very small percentage are ever interested in becoming a Lean CEO. The many preconceptions, beliefs, behaviors, and competencies that people positively associate with Lean CEOs are the result of this bifurcated status — being more like a team member at work, be curious, willing to understand the work, help, and learn — than being the CEO. Fine, be the CEO in settings outside of work, that’s no problem, but not at work.

Of course, to single status CEOs, the words “everything must change” are toxic, in part because that includes the CEOs workplace status. The best that single status CEOs can or will do with Lean is to approve of the use of “Lean tools” for lower-status people in the company to help them solve their day-to-day problems. The result is “Fake Lean,” classical management with the addition of some Lean tools. Needless to say, the Lean CEO does not impose such a restriction. They embrace “Respect for People” and “Kaizen” — not just “Lean tools.”

Anyone who works in a company whose CEO is dual status loves working there, as much as working for a living can be loved, certainly far more than working in a company whose CEO is single status. The thinking, learning, and experimentation doors fly wide open. People are free to think and gain new knowledge, skills, and capabilities that they never knew existed. They surprise themselves with what they have done and routinely say it was their best work experience by far.

It is remarkable how a single factor, status, can lead to so many problems, and their continuation, or so many solutions to persistent problems. People vastly underestimate the effect of status on business thinking, decision-making, and progress, as well as in social interactions and culture. You should pay attention to status because as a Lean person, it strongly influences who you listen to and who you ignore. Do not underestimate the possibility that status misleads you or that it could be a key source of your work-related difficulties, frustrations, or misery.

If you would like to learn more about the relationship between status, leadership, and management, please read The Aesthetic Compass and The Triumph of Classical Management Over Lean Management.

SIDEBAR: People are very protective of their status because status is a hard-won social distinction that takes a lot of time, effort, and money to develop and maintain. As such, people with high status are often reluctant to work with or endorse someone who is lower in status. They are disinclined to do this because status is zero-sum. Raising a lower-status person to a higher status will lower their own status — sometimes by a little and other times by a lot. It is only under special circumstances that a higher-status person will raise the someone of lower status. The higher status person must perceive it to be low or no risk, and more likely will do it only if it raises their status. For example, several years ago a now-former colleague insisted, under threat of his attorney, that I remove his endorsement from my website (bobemiliani.com) because he did not want to be associated with someone who is controversial while he was engaged in his expensive self-funded campaign to ascend to higher status. The endorsement read: “Bob is a unique voice in the Lean world, as both an experienced practitioner and an academic. Bob brings passion and intellectual depth to his work and his writing. I always enjoy Bob’s books and I’m glad he is such a strong and well-reasoned voice in the Lean community” (via the Wayback Machine). No editing of the endorsement was possible. “Remove it” was the command. I complied. From this example, you can see why most of those high in status in Lean world refuse to endorse me or my work. C’est la vie. A key takeaway from this mundane human story of love and hate is that Lean people, whatever their status, are just people, not special in any way, subject like everyone else to the push and pull of social influences, micro- and macro- culture, and self-interest.

OBSERVATION: The single status CEO bears some resemblance to retirees (of which I am one) in that their status allows them to be highly selective in deciding what they will or will not do. The dual status CEO bears some resemblance to people who actually do work.

    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop