Planet Lean: The Official online magazine of the Lean Global Network
Survive big company disease with lean and customer value

Survive big company disease with lean and customer value

Michael Ballé, Dan Jones and Mike Orzen
November 25, 2014

FEATURE - To operate successfully we need systems, but as we grow these often give us "big company disease." The solution is bringing leadership at work level to really guarantee customer satisfaction.

Words: Michael Ballé, Institut Lean France; Dan Jones, Lean Enterprise Academy; Mike Orzen, Mike Orzen & Associates

How do you scale up without losing that special touch that made your current customers like you so much? A paradox of business in the 21st century is that on the one hand the winner takes it all – the rush to be faster and larger is very much real – but on the other becoming larger requires being better than others.

Customer purchases depend on the tricky balance between trust in the brand and confidence in one's own previous experience.

Becoming larger needs systems: Frederick Taylor's vision has taken over the world and in most companies it has become evident that employees should work following the instructions coming from the IT system in place. Scalability is largely linked to how smart the system is (and in many cases, how bogged down it is with legacy issue). There simply isn't any way any more to have a cup of coffee without the barista first having to deal with a screen that effectively controls his behavior. Work is defined in detail, training is carried out by learning to "work the system", and new staff can be operational very quickly.

Customer satisfaction needs a human touch: each customer experience is subtly different depending on situation and preferences. In a café, for example, a parent might need milk heated for a baby's bottle, or a pen for their kids to draw on a napkin; businesspeople in a hurry might need fast service and the space to talk and work; and so on. By definition, a system is made to treat every case in the same way, according to a clear, well-defined process even though customers enjoy a service and product for its specific qualities (and get very annoyed for the same reason). Putting a smile on a customer's face requires human judgment and paying attention.

The paradox, of course, is that strong systems are necessary to scale up but people who are asked to routinely follow instructions without any space for initiative rapidly lose any sense of purpose, becoming disengaged and treating customers as problems to somehow fit into the system instead of guests to welcome warmly. As companies grow, they unavoidably fall prey to "big company disease": the victory of systems (clear roles and responsibilities, rigorous processes, synergistic IT systems) over the spirit of quality in both products and services.

Developing workaday leadership is a known solution to this conundrum.

Not the leadership of "great leaders" in the 20th century sense of the term (think of the terrifying leaderships of Hitler, Stalin or Mao), but the day-to-day leadership of frontline employees trying to do the right thing rather than trying to narrowly follow a system.

This is workaday leadership: ordinary, unpretentious, plain and simple acts of leadership that reaffirm the purpose of the work over the dumb demands of the system. The leadership of the waitress lending her pen to the kids to draw with and finding two seconds at the end of the family's meal to compliment them on their napkin drawing. Or the leadership of the car rental clerk making it up to the customer for a delay by offering a free upgrade and then taking the same two seconds when the vehicle is returned to ask them how they liked the drive (and whether they'd want to book the same car next time). In other words, it's the leadership of the human touch.

But as a manager how can you encourage workaday leadership in your employees?

  1. Stable teams: make sure every employee is part of a stable team of five to seven people who work together every day.
  2. Find a team leader: a team leader is not a manager. She's the person who'll act as a reference point for the team because team members look up to her. It's her interpretation of purpose the team will naturally adopt.
  3. Teach the team leader to train team members to basic standards: the team leader's role is essential to help each team member understand how the system's basic work standards apply to specific situations. It's the manager's role to train the trainer and teach the team leader how to train team members.
  4. Train the team leader in solving day-to-day problems: every staff member will encounter obstacles in doing their work well – some are personal, some are situational, some reflect how the team works together. As a manager, it's your job to train the team leader to help her team with solving such problems, both at one-to-one and team level.
  5. Help the team leader to support initiative: human beings both love and hate routines. They love the confidence routines offer, but they also get bored and disengaged with them. The antidote is to continuously look for small initiatives and improvements to keep the routine job interesting. This is a key role of the team leader, and one that needs every day support from you as a manager.

The promise of workaday leadership is in fact much larger than compensating for the rigidity of the system.

Local efforts to go beyond the system and satisfy customers are also a unique source of real innovation if leaders recognize the initiatives in front of their very eyes. By acknowledging the need for leadership in every team, for every job, every day, everywhere senior executives will also redefine their own leadership. They will recognize how local improvements reflect of their wider policies, procedures or systems, and in doing so they will recognize opportunities to face company-level challenges.

Workaday leadership is not an also-ran prize for those who didn't climb the corporate ladder. It is, rather, a way to reconcile initiative at the top of the food chain and at the coalface, where value is created for customers.

Every hack an employee comes up with to fix a system holds in itself the promise of company renewal, for those with eyes to see and ears to listen.

To succeed at scaling up we need to temper the soullessness of large systems with the human touch in the form of judgment and initiative. This requires developing workaday leadership in every one, every day, everywhere. Success in the 21st century means abandoning the taylorist scheme of a great leader running a mechanical organization made of routinized robots and adopting the habit of growing and developing leaders in every workplace.

As the scaffolding that props up the ability to scale, systems are here to stay. Improvement, however, rests on the ability to develop leadership at work level and to balance the system with purpose and engagement in order to find innovative ways to seek customer satisfaction.


Michael Ballé is a lean author, executive coach and co-founder of Institut Lean France
Dan Jones is co-founder of the Lean Movement
Mike Orzen photograph
Mike Orzen ( has over 20 years of experience in IT, operations, and the application of lean to the service industry. He is a globally recognized pioneer in the field of lean IT

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