Want to be a better leader? Why you should spend more time on your business’s front line

Japan has a management term called ‘Genchi Genbutsu’, which can be translated as ‘Go and see for yourself’. The philosophy behind Genchi Genbutsu is that when a problem arises within a business, leaders should go and see the location of the actual problem, so they can address it quickly and efficiently

Why you should spend more time on your business’s front line

Genchi Genbutsu is one of the 13 pillars of the renowned Toyota Production System, developed by automotive maker Toyota to maximise the efficiency of the manufacturing process, while minimising cost and waste. 

Going to the location of a problem might seem like obvious good business practice. Surprisingly, however, it is often neglected as a strategy for securing competitive advantage. Failing to apply ‘Genchi Genbutsu’ is not just an issue for large multinationals, where major decisions may be made remotely by executives working thousands of kilometres away from their frontline operations. It can also be a problem for smaller, more entrepreneurial businesses that pride themselves on their agility, adaptability and intimacy with staff and customers. 

Entrepreneurial leaders are under a lot of time pressure – pressure that only increases as their business grows. When they start out, entrepreneurs tend to spend huge amounts of time on the front line – in fact, in most cases, they are the front line. As their business expands, however, and their days become increasingly swallowed up by meetings, they rightly delegate more and more tasks to other members of their team. 

Delegation is sensible since it enables entrepreneurial leaders to focus on growing their business, but it can increase the distance between those leaders and the front line. Spending less time on the front line may result in leaders having a more limited understanding of the key issues and trends affecting their business. And they may be less in tune with the behaviours and needs of their employees and customers than they were in the past. They may also encounter major problems due to processes and projects not being under as much control as they had assumed. 

Leading from the front

For my book, 21st Century Business Icons, I researched some of the world’s best-known business leaders, to understand the philosophies and strategies that underpinned their success. A common theme with many leaders is their willingness to lead from the front, which includes spending time on the front line – talking to employees, listening to customers, solving problems, and improving processes. 

Today, many businesses rely on employee engagement surveys to gauge the sentiment of their employees. But perhaps they could take some inspiration from Melanie Perkins, the Australian entrepreneur who founded graphic design platform Canva. What’s her simple and direct approach to engaging with her staff? Eating lunch with them. 

Another great example of a leader who embraces the front line is Sir James Dyson, inventor of bagless vacuum cleaners and various other revolutionary products. Over the years, he has spent time on his own production lines, working with his teams to figure out how they can be made more efficient. Then there’s Brian Chesky, CEO and co-founder of home-sharing platform Airbnb. In 2010, he decided that to improve the company’s service, he needed to experience it for himself. So, he spent several years living in different types of Airbnb accommodation. Last year, he announced that he would be renting out his own San Francisco home via the platform. 

Of course, leading from the front is not the same as micromanaging. So, it’s important to distinguish between the two. Leading from the front involves playing an active and day-to-day role in the operations of a business rather than hiding away in a corner office or behind the screen in a video-conference call. Micromanaging means taking extreme control over employees’ work and decision-making – and it needs to be avoided at all costs since it is detrimental to morale and performance and can fuel high staff turnover. 

Leading from the front – while resisting the temptation to micromanage – enables entrepreneurial leaders to stay close to their business as it grows and evolves. It also equips them with the crucial knowledge to anticipate, prevent and solve problems. By better understanding the perspectives of both employees and customers, entrepreneurial leaders will be able to hold on to their top talent and respond to emerging market trends. It’s almost hard to overstate the importance of ‘Go and see for yourself’. To be a good leader of an entrepreneurial business, you should spend time on the front line. 

Sally Percy is an experienced business journalist and editor, specialising in leadership and management. She is editor of ‘Edge’, the official journal of the UK’s Institute of Leadership, and a leadership contributor to Forbes.com. During her career, Sally has written for numerous publications and also works as a commercial copywriter, speechwriter and ghostwriter, creating thought leadership content for well-known business leaders. She is author of ‘21st Century Business Icons: The Leaders Who Are Changing our World’ (Kogan Page). 

Sally Percy
Sally Percy

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