Lean management

Lean management is about paying attention to detail

There is a saying that “the devil is in the detail.” It is indeed the detail that often makes the difference. It’s the detail that is the hard part. Lean management success comes from attention to all the little details that make move things forward. Too much time is spent “strategizing” and too little is spent actually making things work.

The best companies are almost anal

Countless companies set out to produce the best search engine or the best phone. Google and Apple managed to combine good ideas, bright people and extreme attention to detail. They handle the complexity of their products, so the rest of us don’t have to.

A friend of mine used to work as a designer for Apple in California and he told me stories of how people there were obsessed with detail. It took a meeting of VPs from design, marketing and product development to sign off on a simple error screen in an application. The engineer sounds like a marketing person, the marketing person talks like a designer and the designer just shuts up, since they are way beyond form and function. The air is dense with detail. In Philips, where I used to work, no VP with any self-respect would degrade himself to deal with this kind of detail.

Attention to detail is about caring about your work

Another friend of mine has a one-man communications agency. He left a large agency and managed to bring along a small project from a global brand. He is now getting all of the global brand’s Danish business. His trick? There is no trick, no foul play or inflated promises. He is simply there for them at any time and he is personally on top of all the little details that constitute PR work. In the large agency, all hours were spent coordinating between executives, account manager and PR consultants. The client just got tired of the real work not being done.

His business is not scalable, of course, but it shows that attention to detail beats size hands down when it comes to creating a great customer experience.

When meetings get in the way of work

Studies show that managers in today’s large companies on average spend half their working time in meetings. This is not a problem in itself. Meetings can be very productive if they have a clear purpose, are managed and result in good decisions that are supported by all participants. Most often this is not the case. Meetings become endless exchanges of information and viewpoints.

The rhetorically strong and very verbal employees love this playing field since they can seize the initiative and present themselves as leaders. This would not be a problem if their initiative would then continue outside the meeting, where work typically gets done. That’s the time when reality hits them. To make even small changes inside large organisations you need the stamina of the tortoise rather than the sprint of the hare. That’s the time when they drop the change and sprint to the next meeting.

When the rhetorically strong seize initiative in meetings then they risk crowding out the quieter types. The quiet team roles are often the ones that can handle the detail that will get work done. When they are not involved then progress suffers. Many leaders are, of course, smart enough to understand this diversity and orchestrate that information is passed on to the quiet types without too much loss of meaning. The problem is that many leaders do not understand this challenge. Unconsciously they develop a culture where the ”speakers” are invited into decision-making, while the “doers” don’t show up. Either the doors are not invited, or they, as Gilbert once put it, “avoid spending time in meetings with time-wasting morons.”

The end result is that decision-making is removed from knowledge and action and organisations end up in a form of paralysis. This is a great opportunity for consultants and sub-contractors but it erodes the organisation’s ability to change and to innovate.

Giving room to those that have the attention to detail

How do we reverse this development? I think it’s about having fewer, shorter and more managed meetings. Meetings are not entertainment or social gatherings. People should prepare beforehand. In this way, more meetings can again become occasions for good, informed decision-making.

Another remedy would be to take an old pillar of management more seriously. Decision power should be where the knowledge is. It is important to leave ample room for maneuver to the people that can master and manage the detail. They need more decision power to get things done. Sometimes management’s task is just to get out of the way. Spend more time doing rather than talking.

It’s often the people that master the detail that produce great work – if they can deploy it collaboratively and with great discipline. In this case, a collaborative business process tool could be a beneficial help to deploy it in practice.

Tip! Belbin has a good listing of typical team roles. Get an overview on Wikipedia.

Søren Pommer

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