Time for the CEO to go ‘Gemba’

Time to lob a question at the C-Suite: what’s it for and what do the folk who go there on a daily basis, do?

How do they spend their time? Where is it that they add value to the business?

Why do I never see them except on the business pages of my newspaper?

Well here’s a radical thought for the denizens of the ivory tower in question: an effective CEO hardly needs a suite or even an office.

Ideally a CEO only has one task and that is to spend the working day visiting, and talking directly to, employees, suppliers and customers. In that order.

A CEO who wants to achieve something of value needs to know exactly what individuals in each of these constituencies know, and think, about the business. This can only be discovered face-to-face, one-to-one.

The Japanese figured this out a long time ago. They even have their own name for it: Genchi Genbutsu which means ‘go and see.’ It started life as a key principle of the Toyota Production System now used throughout the world to make practically everything. It suggests that in order to truly understand a business situation one needs to go to Gemba the ‘real place’ where work is done.

Tom Peters called it ‘Managing By Wandering About’ in his book In Search of Excellence but it has the same meaning.

It is a simple fact that every employee knows how to do their jobs better and more efficiently. All a CEO has to do is ask them.

Suppliers nearly always know more than one might think about the business they supply because they see more from their independent, yet parasitic, perspective. The remora often knows before the shark when the shark is sick.

And many customers have valuable stories to tell.

For example, does the CEO of the insurance company my chum uses to cover his car know that to add a driver to his policy for a two week holiday costs £75 yet to add the same driver for the remaining life of the policy only £22? Does the CEO have any idea how that customer, who had to ask the specific question to get the lower answer, now views his motor insurer? And that he tells everyone he knows.

The answer to just about every question in business and commerce lies in getting one person who needs to know stuff to talk to another person who has the answer. And that cannot be done from the C-Suite alone.

A perfect example of this idea in practice concerns this fine chap, Adrian Carton de Wiart.

Appointed to lead the Norwegian Campaign in 1940, he penned the following note and attached it with a drawing pin to the door of his command centre: “Force Headquarters; back later”. He never went there again and spent his entire time with the troops.

It is an example which the folk who run some of today’s struggling enterprises might usefully emulate. It would allow them to facilitate the implementation of all the good ideas that they discover on their travels.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on 27th October 2015.