What would Phil say?

My friend Eric works in his company’s internal consulting group. A big part of his job is preparing Powerpoint decks and presenting them to senior management.

This is how the process currently works: the Senior VP of a group — let’s call him Phil –asks for an analysis. There’s no formal meeting between Phil and Eric in which they discuss the objectives and the type of analysis Phil is looking for. Phil is very busy — too busy — to meet with Eric for any length of time. In fact, Phil is too busy to ever meet with Eric during the project. Consequently, Eric and his team are flying blind: they don’t really know what Phil wants, they don’t know what kind of analysis he’s looking for, and they don’t know how he wants it presented.

So what happens? Everyday, Eric and his team ask, “What would Phil say about this? What would Phil say about that?” It’s a giant guessing game that they always lose. Because when they do finally present to Phil, he inevitably says, “That’s not really what I was looking for.” And back Eric goes to re-work the analysis.

Eric says that the final two weeks before a presentation are almost all waste. His days are consumed with guessing and re-guessing the content and the precise phrasing of the text on the slides. (“Phil doesn’t like it when we say ‘red ink.’ Phil doesn’t like it when you have more than three conclusions on one slide.”) And of course, the rework is enormous.

What’s remarkable about this situation is that Eric’s company is widely admired for its operational efficiency. Eric himself likes the company and the executive team that he occasionally works with. But even in a reasonably well-run company, you see this kind of pointless, and utterly avoidable waste.

When lean thinkers talk about going to the gemba, we often think about going to the factory floor or the nurses’ station or the mortgage processing desk. But there are other gembas, too. For Phil, Eric’s office is a gemba: that’s where valuable business analysis is being performed. Phil should be visiting this gemba on a regular basis to see what work is being done, to find out what problems exist, and to help solve them. But he doesn’t. He thinks he’s too busy to do his job in that way.

This results in work coming to him in large batches (in Eric’s case, 2-3 months of work). It also inevitably necessitates inspecting quality in at the end, rather than building it in from the beginning, with all the waste that entails.

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to ensure that there’s clarity surrounding daily work. That means going to your team’s gemba on a regular basis and coaching them through their work.

Without that discipline, they’ll likely be speculating about what Phil would say — and getting it wrong.