Coddling Forbidden | Bodo Wiegand | Wiegand’s Watch

Bodo WiegandBodo Wiegand heads the Lean Management Institute, which is the German affiliate of the Lean Enterprise Institute. In his latest two newsletters, on Wiegand’s Watch, he explains how management should not coddle organizations but instead lead them.

Here is my full translation of his article, followed by my comments:

Bodo Wiegand: “Last year, we successfully led two companies from value-stream orientation and mindset change to process orientation, meaning that the secondary functional processes were integrated into the end-to-end, primary processes.

Since 80% of the processes in both companies were organized in optimized value streams, this was actually a solvable task. But both companies differ very strongly in management style, which in turn has dramatically affected implementation speed.

The first company had a managing director with strong leadership traits, and his motto was: the upcoming topics are discussed and everyone could express an opinion and participate in the discussion. If not everybody agreed, he made the decision. As you know, this is a form of leadership that I strongly support. I call it democracy. The decision-making process is managed jointly. If there is no consensus, a decision must be made as to whether to run right or left.

In the second company, we enountered a completely different management culture. All decisions were made by consensus and, in case of doubt, not made at all. The decision process took much longer, was more tedious, and the results were full of compromises. This ultimately led to projects taking longer and successes remaining below the potential improvements in efficiency and effectiveness .

Let us take a closer look at these two leadership philosophies. In the second, a facility owned by an industrial group, there was a chairman of the plant management, 6 division managers, 10 department heads and 16 team leaders as well as 12 champions. The number of operators per first-line manager in production averaged 30 — actually too high — and in the indirect sector 5 employees per manager — actually too low. The share of indirect employees in the total workforce amounted to 35%.

This imbalance prompted the CEOs of the group to demand process orientation. Ultimately,the 7-member board issued a clear statement to our strategy workshop: ‘We stand behind this project, for the reason that we took it on.’

That was a good start. We then discussed with the plant management the idea of a 3-day off-site workshop. The answer was prompt and based on consensus: ‘We could not stay away from the factory for three days, and weekends – Mr. Wiegand – belong to our families.’ Ultimately, we had 6 hours.

Based on the assessment of the current situation and its unflattering outcome, the Chairman of the Board demanded to see results in 6 months. After that, the coddling lines were drawn and we were sent to do the coddling.

No deadline was met. The monthly steering committee meetings became festivals of excuses explaining why something was not ready or hadn’t worked out. If decisions were needed, they had to be made together, always according to the motto: ‘when we decide together, then we are all behind the decisions, and they are implemented.’

To achieve this, they needed further, deeper investigations, to generate further, deeper information. Since there is no such thing as 100% information, these were mostly only excuses and delaying tactics behind which the entire plant management was hiding.

As soon as a decision could objectively no longer be torpedoed, the next argument was that A and B were against it, and that therefore the implementation would never work. That meant we had to find another solution, that everyone could agree on. It was just brutal. But what were the reasons for such an attitude based on unconditional consensus?

We have found that, in such consensus-driven companies, everybody addresses everybody else as “Du” (translator’s note: in German, this is the informal mode used among friends and family, as opposed to the formal “Sie” used professionally and with strangers).  This creates mostly misunderstandings in the workplace. The sense of collegiality implied by this informal speaking pattern creates obvious difficulties when your colleague becomes your boss. Suddenly Franz reports to Karl.

Only a few are able to grasp the difference and manage it properly. All sorts of human characteristics that did not matter among colleagues suddenly do. This goes beyond ‘why him and not me?’ into ‘I know your weaknesses, so don’t tell me what to do’ or about my field of expertise, and personal matters: ‘I am your friend and you can not do this to me.

The line between the professional ‘Du’ and the private ‘Du’ is not razor sharp, and the coddling factor — as I propose to call it — comes ever more to the fore. There is actually nothing to say against this enterprise culture, as long as between the professional ‘Du’ and the private ‘Du’ are clearly separated. But unfortunately, the use of ‘Du’ tends to erase this hard border, particularly between individuals with shared interests in a sport or a cultural activity outside of work.

Another phenomenon that we experience again and again with this form of leadership has to do with  troubleshooting or firefighting.  Let’s say, for example, that materials are missing. A should actually report it in the morning production meeting. He does not, however, to protect B and not be a tattletale. B promises A that the problem will be resolved by tomorrow. But it is not. A, again, does not report it, and talks to B instead. B promises a solution, but does not keep his promise, and so on…

Only when it is almost too late and you need expedited transportation — that is, additional costs — does A report the problem in the morning session. To the question of why he did not raise the alarm before, he replies that he could not throw a colleague under the bus, and he doesn’t give a name. This is coddling at its best! He can and must give the name.

In coddling organizations, unfortunately, it’s less about the issues, but more about people, loss of face, positions, and power games. Two thirds of management time is usually wasted in these completely senseless games, in hours spent meetings and firefighting. And everyone is happy, living by the motto: ‘We have now again just managed this. Without us, nothing would work here.’

Because it is not about things, but about people, the problems are managed rather than solved by investigating for cause. This approach — from my point of view — is feeble-minded. Unfortunately, we encounter it too often, especially in coddling organizations.

These so-called managers understand, or refuse to understand, that every problem is a disruption in the process and therefore an opportunity to improve. To do this, however, you have to analyze the cause of a problem and takes measures that prevent recurrence. It requires an organization that focuses on the cause and not the person.

In our example, A should immediately have reported the problem, possibly bringing B along and asking him about the cause. Even if the cause was ‘I had simply forgotten,’ one could then have started with B and trained him or her in project management, so that this does not recur.

Problems are opportunities for improvement. Let’s return to our project in the coddling organization. Well, after 3 months of coddling, I went to the chairman of the board, explained the problem, and asked him to visit the plant every month. As a result, the executive committee responsible for the company showed more interest, and was more frequently on the spot.

The factory manager asked me what was going on. I frankly told him what I had discussed with his boss. Then on a long evening we developed a plan to get out of this predicament. We then had an offsite management workshop on Friday and Saturday, set new rules for the transformation, and requested toughness.

After 6 months of intensive coaching and management, we have completed the project with a four month delay. What a waste! The new organization has consciously destroyed cliques. Intensive coaching of the executives continues but … they still coddle.”

Michel Baudin‘s comments: I agree with the gist of Wiegand’s article, and my comments are just reactions to details that struck me.

The leadership style of the first company, which Wiegand calls “democracy,” truly is not. The managing director of a company is appointed by the CEO or the board and does not derive authority from the consent of the employees. Even in the German system of co-determination (“Mitbestimmung”), the board and the work councils represents other stakeholders too.

Wiegand argues that consensus-driven companies are coddling their employees in ways that stifle improvements by systematically putting feelings ahead of business needs. At first sight, this is at odds with the team decision-making process I was trained on, which valued consensus over compromise.

If a team is composed of members working towards a common goal, an objective assessment of the facts and the willingness to set aside egos leads to a consensus decision that the team resolutely implements. On technical problems, it yields better solutions than votes or face-saving compromises.

To help such solutions emerge, you assign to the team willing members with complementary rather than overlapping skills, you dedicate the team to the project, and you provide a war room or obeya for members to work side by side… It’s no guarantee that a great team will emerge, but at least you have laid the ground for it.

But none of this is applicable to the context of Wiegand’s article. Transforming the management practices of an organization with departments that are competing fiefdoms is a human problem, not a technical problem. Seeking a consensus in such a context is guaranteed to water down content and delay execution, and this is exactly what Wiegand points to.

One culture-specific observation he makes is that, in German consensus-seeking organizations, members address each other with the informal “Du.” This may be difficult to understand for native speakers of English or Mandarin, who address everybody respectively as “you” or “ni,” regardless of position. Speakers of Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Italian, or French, on the other hand, easily get it, as their languages all have multiple pronouns to express the relative social positions of speakers. In this respect, with its four different courtesy levels that I know of, Japanese takes the cake:

Ore (俺)Temae (手前), Kisama(貴様)Crude. Used among buddies, soldiers, gangsters, and when talking to subordinates in anger.
Boku (僕)Kimi (君)Familiar. Used among classmates and peers, and with your juniors
Watashi (私)Anata (あなた)Polite. Used with strangers and elders.
Watakushi (私)Anata (あなた)Formal. Used in ceremonies.

I heard there is also a way of saying “I” that is reserved for the emperor. The German language provides only two levels: one way to address friends, family, and peers, and another to address strangers and people of different social standing. Wiegand’s point is that, where the language prescribes such distinctions, the systematic use in the workplace of the form culturally reserved for friends, family and peers creates confusion and prevents managers from doing their jobs, particularly when, outside of work, subordinates happen to be friends, relatives or members of the same social clubs.

Regardless of the language used, juggling professional and private life interactions is always a challenge, especially in small towns, where many factories are. In principle, working with colleagues you have known since kindergarten makes daily communications easier, but not management decisions.

On the other side of this debate, writers like Malcolm Gladwell have argued that distance and the use of formal language in interactions between managers and subordinates impair communications. He cites the case of a Columbian airliner crash, in which the co-pilot didn’t dare draw the pilot’s attention to mistakes that were eventually fatal.

If this were generally true, language could be an insurmountable barrier to economic development, and there is no evidence that it is. Otherwise, Japan would be poor. First, while formality channels communication, it does not prevent it. Subordinates learn to work around the rules and enlightened bosses find other ways to show they are approachable, for example by the clothes they wear.

When a Japanese tells you that something is “a little difficult,” you learn that it means “impossible.” If an American boss politely asks you for anything, you learn that it is an order; if he or she tells you “I suggest you do x,” you understand that taking that suggestion is a condition for keeping your job. These codes vary by culture, but all those who survive in corporate life master them.

Toyota executive Mitsuru Kawai in a Forging Shop

In class-conscious Japan, with its four different pairs of pronouns for “I” and “you” depending on who you are and who you talking to, Mitsuru Kawai’s sartorial choices send a message: “We’re in this together.” In Japan, the idea of having everybody wear the same work clothes is not limited to Toyota.

By contrast, at Porsche in Leipzig employees wear different clothing based on rank and specialty, which separates groups more sharply than language can. The common shopfloor uniform is one part of TPS that has not found its way into the Porsche version of Lean.

The notion that “problems are opportunities” is a tired American business cliché that is both overdue for retirement and unnecessary to make Wiegand’s points. In a UK plant, I remember seeing an inspirational American poster on a wall on which a local had crossed out the word “opportunity” and written in “problem” instead.

When the oxygen tanks on Apollo 13 blew up, Jim Lovell didn’t say “Houston, we have an opportunity.” If you google this bizarre expression, you actually find psychologists who think that’s what he should have said, but what would Mission Control have understood if he had? Problems and opportunities may overlap but they are different and should not be conflated.

Also, in case you are wondering why Wiegand discusses the second company at length and not the first, it is the subject of his next article.

3 comments on “Coddling Forbidden | Bodo Wiegand | Wiegand’s Watch

  1. The translation and the editorial insights are both appreciated. Once we agree there is a problem, each of us makes a choice to be part of the problem, or accept the opportunity to be part of the solution.

  2. Quite interesting. In mainland China, there is no “du vs. sie” problem (there is a similar distinction in the language, but the formal pronoun is seldom used even to address one’s boss). And there is, culturally, a large distance between management and employees.
    This type of problem appears among colleagues coming from the same home town or from an area with the same dialect. In case there is a group of Mainlanders and a group of Hongkongese, there are virtually always an ‘us vs. them’ mindset on each side. In one company I remember there were 3 distinct groups — the Germans, the Hongkongese, and the mainland Chinese (which had a few members in management and comprised most of the workforce).

    • Thanks for clarifying this. I was actually tempted to list Mandarin along with English as a language that doesn’t have the “du vs. Sie” distinction, yet supports a society with clearly marked classes. The most mindboggling array of pronouns I have encountered is next door to you, in Japan.

      The complicated rules offers you ways to express yourself by violating them. For example, if you find that your friend is full of himself today, you can address him more formally than you normally would. You can also express anger by a using abnormally familiar speech.

      The point of bringing this up is that the presence or absence of such niceties in the language does not seriously impact management. It neither facilitates nor interferes with effective leadership.

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