Consensus versus Fiat


One hallmark of the lean companies I have had the honor of seeing up close is a decision making process that is often maddening and frustrating to people new to the organization who are not yet immersed in the culture. As one exec described it to me, “It’s like eating at a Chinese restaurant – you really don’t want to look in the kitchen and see how they do it. Better to just stay out in front and enjoy the results.”

The decision making process is one of consensus building, and the frustration comes from those who want the top guy to make immediate and final decisions. After all, that’s Management 101, right? Gather the facts, solicit the advice of the staff, then make a decision demanding that everyone respect that decision and go forth to execute it.

The decision-by-consensus process is quite a bit different. The person in charge gathers those folks who know something about the issue and those who are affected by it … may or may not be his direct reports – usually not, but then again lean companies generally have little respect for any chains of command. The issue is roundly discussed and all of the folks ideate, argue, philosophize and generally talk all around the issue with a few alternatives usually emerging. Then the meeting ends, not because anything concrete was decided but because the allotted time for the meeting has expired. The view of the boss is known, but his thoughts about the best decision are given no more weight than anyone else’s in the discussion. Then they will meet again. And probably again. In fact they will keep meeting, perhaps over a span of weeks and occasionally months, until a consensus decision is reached.

In the meantime there will be lots and lots of side conversations and debates around coffee pots and in offices, usually between people with opposing views. Through all of those conversations folks will be convinced, the problems with one alternative or the other will be worked out and slowly, a decision will be reached.

For those who want instant results (usually those who want the boss to immediately impose their view on the rest of the organization), it can be very frustrating. For those with genuine respect for the rest of the organization, it is the only way to go. Most important, it is the way to make decisions with genuine, full support. Under the classic, decision-by-the-top-guy approach, more often than not a significant number of people have not bought in, feeling as though their opinions and knowledge don’t matter, and are quite apt to be waiting for their chance to say, “I told you so” when the decision turns out poorly.

Slow, well discussed, well debated and well massaged decisions tend to be much better, and much more likely to succeed with the full support of those involved and affected by it. And consensus decision making is very much a critical element of the lean culture for the simple reason that it reflects the humility of leadership and respect for people.

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