The term “ground reality” is a phrase I picked up in India (for some others, see here—the post is dated September 18, 2005, so you have to scroll down). Ground reality is similar to the Japanese concept of “genba,” meaning the real place where actual work is done—that, to be a responsible leader, you must go and see, talk to people, and understand the issues where the work—and value creation—is happening. I have been thinking about this concept a lot lately, not so much related to health, but because of various events in the news such as the Wells Fargo CEO’s testimony before Congress, a local development involving a major non-profit, as well as seeing the movie “Sully,” in which NTSB officials try to use computer simulation to prove, in hindsight, that the captain should have navigated his suddenly crippled aircraft to a nearby airport rather than land in the icy Hudson River.
The concept of genba or ground reality has never been particularly rooted in American society. In fact, the well-known quality expert W. Edwards Deming, though his ideas were used in the military during World War II, got his start in manufacturing helping Japanese industry improve quality, because U.S. industry was more concerned about volume than quality after the war. Deming’s 14 points for good management remain, in my view, the gold standard for ensuring not only quality but worker and customer satisfaction—yet, in the interest of short term gains and perhaps some cultural elements in the U.S. as well, they are probably less implemented these days than after Japanese competitiveness forced a relook in the 1970s and 80s.
I had several opportunities to practice this concept in my career, and I learned a great deal along the way. Now, as I no longer work, I think about it more broadly—from listening to tone-deaf bureaucrats in a movie to observing the workings of organizations that make decisions that impact real people from the comfort—and ignorance—of an office far removed from the reality on the ground.
One role I had in the workplace on two different occasions was managing the benefits and policies associated with expatriates, who of course lived all over the world, in different time zones, climates, and living conditions. Having been one myself, I was certainly in a better position than most to understand the concerns and struggles of my customer population. At the same time, I found that any knowledge I had from my own experience was just that—one person’s experience. Unless I maintained regular contact with the expat population, I risked making decisions that were short sighted. Similarly, when I was in India—as an expat myself—I was operating in a society that was very different from my own. Without making a concerted effort to understand the “ground reality” of our employees—and I was fortunate that doing so was very much the culture of the company—I could neither be effective nor learn to navigate the delicate balance between maintaining integrity to the larger headquarters’ objectives and respecting local needs and considerations. I would add that this is not a one time exercise. You can go work on the line for a day as a manager or executive and get a taste of the experience that line workers have, but this is not enough. It is deceptively easy to fall back into a position of making decisions or judgments from the comfort of an office, removed from “ground reality.” It is almost like saying that having run a marathon, you are now fit. The reality is that unless you keep exercising, you will lose that fitness very quickly. And, if you see your job as helping people below you do their jobs more effectively (which, sadly, many executives and managers don’t), one and done doesn’t cut it.
One of the other benefits of maintaining constant contact with people on the front lines is understanding the process of value creation and the vital importance of front line workers, especially relative to administrators—not to mention that people on the front lines also become “real,” rather than abstract numbers on a financial statement. Too often, when jobs are cut these days, organizations err on the side of failing to remove administration, rather than sparing people who actually know how to do the job. Likely, it is much easier to fire a nameless face at the bottom than to trim fat at the middle and the top—yet that is often the biggest source of organizational obesity, not only in the corporate world but more strikingly in academia.
Short sighted decisions often emanate from failure to take ground reality into account. Until a few months ago, a local non-profit that is a subsidiary of a large national organization (to remain unnamed, though my local readers may know what I am referring to) offered a much appreciated and needed service in our community—driving people who otherwise would struggle to find transportation to doctor’s, hospital, and other medical appointments. The service cost the organization very little, being funded largely with local donations, and served more than 300 people a week. Then, in the wisdom that comes only from sitting in an office in headquarters, the national organization decided that this service, which was developed in response to local needs, was not part of the organization’s “core mission” and would need to be discontinued. Although the program was transferred to another local group, today the transferred service provides rides for less than 30% of those formerly served (in part because the new service relies on online booking, which many of the riders, who are elderly, do not or cannot access). In the course of this change, there was no evidence from any of the communications—which were all “top down”–that anyone from the headquarters ever visited the local community, talked to volunteer drivers or patients, or otherwise took the time to learn the impact that such a move would have on real people.
The demeanor and statements of the Wells Fargo CEO are another example. The idea that over 5000 people opening fraudulent accounts were undirected or at minimum weren’t heavily pressured by senior management to do so is, for anyone who has worked in a large organization, ludicrous. (I was amused–only partially– to hear an industry commentator lay the blame not on management but on Wells Fargo’s human resources department). As my accounting professor at Wayne State once said, explaining the ins and outs of why accounting is not a mathematical science but is subject to human interpretation, “people do what they do because they love their families.” Sitting in his plush office, with an income that he will never be able to use in his lifetime, I would be very surprised if this CEO ever visited a branch, talked to his employees, or otherwise understood the impact of aggressive sales policies that turned employees into perpetrators of fraud. He has no concept, it appears, that part of his job and that of his senior team is also to use his influence, access and power to help people do their jobs more effectively. And money—and greed—are clearly fogging the picture as well. I once attended a financial seminar with Marty where the speaker noted that studies have shown that many wealthy people don’t feel “secure” until they have at least $63 million. Can you imagine? But, if true, it is an insight into the mentality of people at the top of such organizations as Wells Fargo—who therefore have little inclination to ensure that people on the front lines are sharing in whatever wealth the company generates and have a comfortable wage.
One of the things about being in Japan for so long was absorbing some of the communal nature and sense of shared responsibility of that society, which is sadly missing in most of institutional America (there are exceptions, of course.) It is routine in Japan, if a company runs into a scandal or crisis such as Wells Fargo finds itself in, for the head of the company to resign (a recent example is the head of Takata, maker of the defective airbags). Attention to ground reality is something I think we need a lot more of. Only then will CEOs, government and educational administrators, politicians and others truly begin to understand not only the impact of their decisions but, just as important, how to make decisions that benefit more than their inner circle.