Tag archives: management

Leadership Lessons from the Front Line – Go to the Gemba

Reading about leadership in the books is very different from going down to the front line and implementing leadership in a factory. For one, it’s hot, dusty and dirty.I’d like to share some of this so perhaps you don’t have to get hot, dusty or dirty (at least not for the moment).

A key lesson in most LEAN textbooks is “go to the gemba” or go to the front line. Implementing this practice has taught me three key lessons:-

  1. People are inherently good. They want to do “the right thing”. No one wakes up with bad intentions and a desire to cheat.
  2. Going to down (“turun padang”) and support the front line ask questions (instead of critiquing) helps achieve business results.
  3. Leaders shouldn’t make assumptions until they spend some time on the front line.

Case Study

One of the plant managers I work with was very frustrated with his lab team. He told me that they weren’t making their targets and their work was late. Over lunch, he mentioned that he would issue a warning letter if they didn’t start working. I asked him to hold on and in line with LEAN, let’s have a look at how they work. We agreed to spend the afternoon at their workplace and observing them and asking questions.

We spent the afternoon at the lab. We asked the team how things were. We asked them to show us their processes and how they worked. Spending the afternoon with them was beneficial as it helped reinforce the following messages:-

  1. The leaders care about you and your team.
  2. The leaders are there to support you and your team.
  3. If you don’t meet your targets, we are there to help make your job easier so we can all meet our targets.

We saw their processes. The testing process involved writing results into 4 logbooks, using a calculator to input the results into another logbook and then logging the final results into a computer that constantly hung.

The process was a case study for waste. The logbooks happened to be all over the lab which meant there was waste of motion. With multiple data entry points, it was no wonder that there were frequent errors. The slow computer caused delay and frustration among the team. It was not surprising that the team didn’t meet their deadlines.

Key lesson No 1.

None of the lab team had the intention of not meeting their deadlines. They all wanted to do good work. They were very frustrated that they couldn’t do good work. People all want work well – you just have to find a way to help them work better.

Key lesson No 2.

Go to the front line. Ask questions. The questions are more powerful than giving the answers.  Our questions included the following:-

  1. Is this process efficient?
  2. What do you need to make it more efficient?
  3. How can we support you to help you meet your deadlines?
  4. What suggestions would you have to help your work?

These coaching style questions helped get the lab team to think. They also helped put the ownership of the processes with the lab team. In a lot of cases, companies will hire productivity consultants who will write new Standard Operating Policies. These thick books will rarely be read and kept in the management library in mint condition. The SOPs will not be implemented as no one reads them nor do they feel ownership of the processes.

Key lesson No 3

Not making any assumptions is essential before you go down to the front line.By withholding judgment of the team, and keeping an open mind, the plant manager was able to delve into the root cause of the issue with the cooperation of the team.

The benefits of making the team re look at their own processes are as follows:-

  1. The team work on this process every day. No one knows the process better – certainly not a consultant and definitely not a manager.
  2. By getting the team to improve the process they take ownership for this. The issue of non-compliance doesn’t arise as they worked on this process. They certainly wouldn’t rewrite a process that they couldn’t follow.
  3. The team also feel greater ownership and sense of engagement within the organization. By implementing ideas from the front line, people feel recognized. This increases employee engagement.

Instead of issuing the warning letters to the team, the plant manager now had a better understanding of the team. By helping the team, he had increased the trust and respect the team had for him. This resulted in :-

1. An engaged team. The lab team are now giving 1 improvement idea per person/month vs 1 improvement idea per team/month. This shows a measurable increase in engagement as well as ownership of the business.

2. Better business results. The lab was now able to meet their on time goal for a whole month.

3. This has translated into better business performance and better results for the organization.

As a leader, keeping the three key lessons at the top of mind when working with your teams will help you drive sustainable performance with your teams. It will also lead to a better culture which in turn leads to greater profits. For further details on how your company can develop a culture of ownership, please call us on 03 6201 4355.

A Simplified Cultural Framework

“The crucial differences…are not biological. They are cultural.” Ruth Benedict, Anthropologist.

Understanding cultures is always a challenge. In today’s global economy, we have to work across different departmental, regional, national and corporate cultures.

Here’s a tool that should make it easier to meet this challenge.

Simplified cultural framework.

1. Communication styles – Direct or indirect? (adapted from Hofstede)

2. Personal drivers – emotional/functional?

3. Bureaucracy/Hierarchy check – the pencil test.

1. Communication styles.

1.1 Direct communication styles are favored by Western cultures. Direct communication gets to the point very quickly, sharing approval or disapproval very clearly.

E.g. One employee to his manager “It is now 1030 – time for tea break. The meeting will end now.”

For those from an indirect culture, they may view this method of communication as rude or confrontational. It is important to remember that this is not meant to be rude or confrontational but a method of expressing oneself. The benefits are that this method of communication make it easy for feedback and flow of information in a corporate setting.

1.2 Indirect communication styles are favored by Asian cultures. This style gives more subtle cues and hints at the desired outcome. This is in line with “saving face” of the recipient. When dealing with this style, one must be more alert to the subtle nuances and clues of the language. In a corporate setting, you will need to spend more time in meetings/negotiations. It would be better to have another person with you studying the tone and body language of the parties concerned while you listen to the words. Getting feedback would require extensive questioning. Some indirect cultures prefer one to one communication as a face saving method.

E.g. An employee mentions to his manager that the team hasn’t eaten breakfast and that is very hungry.

Another example is where the team member are silent when the manager implements a new directive. To elicit opinions, the manager should have one on one sessions with the team members. Here the questions need to be focused – allowing the other person to give suggestions to meet the end result.

2. Personal drivers.

2.1 Functional driven cultures tend to look at issues rationally in black and white. This is often common within the manufacturing industry (probably due to the heavy influence of by six sigma and kaizen).

2.2 Emotional driven cultures tend to look at  experiential and emotive things.

E.g. Purchase decision making – Shower gel. A functionally driven culture will look at price and whether the product cleans. A functionally driven culture will also tend to take shorter time in the shower.

An emotionally driven culture will look at smell and sensory perceptions in deciding to purchase the shower gel.

Within the culture, there may be items which are emotional and some which are functional. In some cultures, religion can inflame passions, while discussions on the work week and working hours are merely functional.

Questions to ask:-

a.Is the issue emotional or functional?

b. If emotional then is there an alternative around it? If functional, how can we address this?

E.g. A Muslim manager on an oil rig in Myanmar issued a directive that no pork would be served. That same afternoon, a call came from the minister’s department telling him that pork will be served on the oil rig. The manager had touched on an emotional issue. Pork was tied in with national dishes and national pride. His reports had not voiced their concerns directly (indirect culture) but as it was an emotional issue, they channeled their frustrations to the ministry. A better way to handle this would’ve been to have a short chat with the reports on a one on one basis, explaining why he wasn’t comfortable with pork in the galley. He should have sought their advice on the best solution. A compromise could have been a separate area designated as pork free.

3. Bureaucracy/Hierarchy check – the pencil test.High or low?

This looks at organizations and the levels of bureaucracy.

3.1 High level e.g. In one organization, we needed the signatures of 4 people to obtain office stationary. This organization had a lot of controls on its people. Common features include slow decision making as well as possible disconnect between the levels of management. When dealing with this culture, we need to accept the slower pace of decision making.

3.2 Low level e.g. In another company, not only did we have free access to the office stationary, we also had access to the very expensive corporate gifts for the CEO, which included Mont Blanc pens. Common features include an empowered workforce as well as faster decision making. When working with this culture, be prepared for swift decisions from lower levels of the organization.

I hope this framework proves useful to dealing with different cultures. Feel free to share your own experiences in the comment box.





A leadership lesson

Over the recent holiday I had a bit of time to think back about my first job. I was a pupil in chambers. In a law firm, the hierarchy begins with the senior partner (also known as God within the law firm), junior partners, senior lawyers, junior lawyers, chief clerks, secretaries, clerks, office boys, tea lady and then the cleaning ladies. Oh, and after the tea lady comes the pupil in chambers!

I had made an error on a particular file that could have been disastrous. My partner in charge, after sorting out the mess made, called the client. I was in front of him when he said these words “An error has been made on the file. Please don’t blame my young colleague. It was my fault and I take full responsibility.”

I worked with him for four years. He was a demanding boss who pushed me really hard. But knowing that he had my back made it easier for me to focus on my work. He took full responsibility for any errors. most managers can learn from this. If you screw up, own up. Take responsibility. You will gain the respect and trust of your team.

As an entrepreneur and father of 2, I now try to make sure that I not only live this value, but also try to instill it in the people around me.

Dealing with a recession/downturn

Everywhere we go people are talking about recession/downturn and a gloomy economic outlook. In fact some studies show that more millionaires are made during a downturn than during a boom.

If you have a relatively small market share in a fragmented market, this is your opportunity to grow market share. Why?
1) Some of your competition may go out of business. This will mean that you have a new potential market which needs your service/product (albeit in reduced quantities)
2) Your consumer may now have a reduced budget. Overall your market will shrink – perhaps from RM100million to RM70million. Is that a large contraction? Yes. However, in your fragmented market, your business may have 1% or less market share. That still gives your organization large room for growth while some competitors shut down.
3) Your product pricing may have to be amended. We are currently offering a product where we tie in our fee with the customers performance. If their organization increases its profits, our fees increase with it.

Do post your thoughts on this.

Managing for Success

Key Issues 

This article will take a holistic view of management. Subsequent articles will focus on the specific areas in greater detail. In Malaysia, in particular the financial sector, among others has been going through various stages of consolidation, with fewer and larger banks in the marketplace. The consultants or investment bankers who propose the mergers or acquisitions paint rosy pictures and their analysis often includes the terms “economies of scale” and “cross selling”. In theory this sounds good but it doesn’t always happen in practice. Studies estimate that between 50 to 80% of all mergers fail to add value. For this article we will be focusing on the financial sector. However, most of the lessons are applicable across industries and functional areas.

There are 3 key initiatives that companies can use to achieve “economies of scale” via “cross selling”, :-

 Breaking down walls

·       Customer focus

·       Single point of contact

1)    Break down walls between departments.

A mortgage salesperson at a large bank is not aware of the bank’s recently launched platinum credit card, When asked by his customers, the reply is “I don’t know, we have so many products. I don’t know what that department is doing.” This is a farly typical response from frontline sales people.

The reasons for this barrier to departments include:-

(a) different locations for the various business units

At one Multi National Company, I observed a division between floors. The 3rd floor sales team were fearful and suspicious of the 4th floor corporate offices. Neither party wanted to go to the other floor. Many banks face not just the challenge of different floors but also have the various business units located at different premises up to 30 minutes drive away. This divide can also happen when people are on the same floor but they put up barriers/silos between units.

(b) No real incentive to cross-sell other products.

Most employees today are often pushed for time. As such, without an incentive to cross-sell and learn about other products, it is unlikely to happen. Frequently, employees don’t put other department requests on top of their list of priorities.

To bridge this divide, companies can implement two measures – the “sponsored lunch” and a revised reward structure. 

“Sponsored Lunch” – Companies should ensure that the heads of department and key personnel to have lunch on a regular basis. People then get to know each other better and build a working relationship. Companies should allow employees to expense the lunch as the benefits of departments working together will show a return many times the lunch investment. In implementing this, departments could take turns hosting the lunch for their guests.

Reward Structure – An important determinant of corporate behaviour is the reward structure. The adage “you get what you pay for” will ring true with any sales manager who has increased commission for slow moving products. If a bank wants it’s employees to cross sell products, it should have an appropriate incentive scheme for them to do so. People fail to realize that the reward structure is one of the most important determinants of corporate culture and behaviour. As a sales manager for commercial vehicles, the most effective way to clear stocks of vehicles/accessories was to give double commission to the sales team.

2) Customer Focus. So often, many new products and processes are thought up in the top floor corporate office without taking into account the customer’s needs.

For example, when a local bank took over another company, they removed the drop box where a large number of customers paid their bills. This action was done without thinking of the customer. The ensuing customer uproar and card cancellation caused the drop box to be reinstated.

When banks want to encourage cross-selling, lack of customer focus is a major hindrance. In today’s market, customers are often pressed for time – yet banks require existing customers to fill out countless numbers of forms and submit the same batch of documents over and over again.

When banks come up with new products or processes, we would suggest they examine the key customer insight. 

Customer insights – All new processes and products should be based on a customer insight. New products especially should be there to meet an unmet consumer need. 

It is rare that the front line staff are ever consulted before a new product is introduced. If they are made part of the product development process then they are more likely to buy into the product and sell it.

A key consumer insight is that there are so many credit cards out there – does the consumer really need another card? The recently launched American Express Platinum Credit Card in Malaysia by Maybank offers golf course entry and discounts at the Shangri-La hotels for dining. These privileges are combined with a complimentary Longines watch if customer spending exceeds RM20,000 in the first 6 months. The benefit is designed to entice high net worth individuals to sign up with American Express.

The dining and golf privileges are designed to entice the customer in while the Longines watch is a smartly designed “carrot” to persuade the consumer to use the card as their primary card over a 6 month period. Once consumers get into the habit of using the card, it is likely that they will continue to use it thus giving Amex a high share of wallet by virtue of continued behaviour patterns. People will continue doing what they do.

3) Single point of Contact. Human beings prefer dealing with people they know and with whom they have a pre-existing relationship. 

A banking executive has an existing relationship with a customer who has taken RM10 million of company loans from the bank. He now requires financing for a BMW 5 series in his wife’s name. The banking executive passes his customer’s contact details to his colleague in auto finance. Frequently, the customer doesn’t receive the call from the auto finance colleague when promised. (BAFIA issues)

Due to silos/barriers mentioned in 1) above, there is little co-operation or incentive to work between departments. To truly maximize the economies of scale, the reward structure mentioned earlier should be in place. Also we would suggest that the customer have one key person that he/she talks to throughout the transaction. 

The single point of contact would help given the following :-

1) Pre-existing relationship – the banking executive would or should have some knowledge of the modus operandi and preferences of the customer. The relationship should also be at a certain point that each party can manage expectations clearly.

2) One person to be accountable – This will avoid finger pointing between departments – the buck stops at one person. For this to work, the bank should make sure that its inter department processes are able to run effectively and efficiently, i.e. minimal repeated processes that are so common with many banks.

If these key strategies are in place, the companies/banks should then be able to capitalize on their large size and truly becomes a seamless “one-stop shop” experience to their customer. This action plan would achieve economies of scale and offer a unique selling proposition. These solutions seem simple and obvious. If they are so simple and obvious, are we implementing them and more importantly are we implementing them successfully? juarezlowe helps implement these and other value added solutions to your organizations.

Juarez Salih Lowe, MBA, LLB, CLP is the Chief Executive Officer of juarezlowe. He has worked at Johnson & Johnson, Cycle & Carriage, Sapura and Lee Hishammuddin. His experience includes management positions in marketing, sales and law across a variety of industries in both Malaysia and Singapore. 

juarezlowe offers corporate training, coaching and consulting services in the areas of change management, negotiation and sales/marketing. juarezlowe‘s learning success across organizations and industries through its unique combination of:-

Interactive Learning where participants are able to interact, leading to the cross-fertilization of ideas. This is achieved via case studies and group exercises with a focus on application of theories.

World-class content adapted from the top international scholars made easy to understand and grasp.

Professional trainers with excellent academic qualifications and relevant corporate experience deliver the above.


For further details on how juarezlowe can add value to your organization or general feedback on the article, please contact us:-

Tel – 03 22614248

Why do So Many Mergers Fail, Holthausen, Robert, Knowledge@Wharton March 2005