“Go to the Gemba” and the Power Distance Index

The two cultural dimensions that differentiate innovate and traditional cultures are “uncertainty avoidance”and the “power distance index”. Innovative organisations have a low power distance index, whereas traditional organisations have a high power distance index. “Go to the Gemba” is a technique that executives can use to reduce the power distance index.


Something happens to an organisation when it grows beyond about one hundred and fifty people, the top Dunbar number. There is no one in the organisation that knows everyone in the organisation. This means that organisations split into tribes and speaking to someone for the first time who is not in your tribe can be perceived as risky. It is common for people to sit within feet of each other for extended periods of time without speaking until some social catalyst (event or person) introduces them. The social and emotional barrier to introducing yourself to an executive is even greater. Think how easy it would be to knock on the door of your CEO and introduce yourself, or stop your CEO in the corridor and say hello. The brave among us might nod at the CEO in the lift, hoping that they nod back to acknowledge our existence.

Executives on the other hand perceive no barrier introducing themselves. When they don’t, it tells us a great deal about our culture and the power distance index.

“Go to the Gemba” is an attitude, it is not a single practice. When an executive looks at a metric and senses the invitation to visit a “team”, they are going to that area with the explicit message “I am deliberating destroying the power distance index in your area, if you need me I am one of you. There is no barrier to anyone speaking to me as we make things better.”

This is where I ask for your help. As we coach executives, it is good to have stories to share. Stories of behaviours where executives have reduced, or increased, the power distance index. Please share your stories as comments. Here are some of mine.

“Going to the Gemba” – Practices that reduce the power distance index

Dresdner Kleinwort Benson had the hardest recruitment processes I ever encountered. The last stage was an interview with Al-Noor Ramji, the CIO of a department containing one and a half thousand people. It was a  constraint in the process that caused significant delays in the recruitment process, it was a constraint that Al-Noor refused to relax. Al-Noor tried to talk me out of the job. One of my candidates called me after the interview to say they did not want the job because they did not like Al-Noor. I asked the name of their current CIO, they did not know it. Just like their current CIO, I explained that they would not be working with Al-Noor on a daily basis. However if they had a problem, they could speak to Al-Noor any time they needed to.

JP Rangaswami replaced Al-Noor as CIO. Every afternoon at 5pm he would leave his office and go to the pub opposite our office where he held a surgery. Anyone could go and discuss an issue they had, or just hang out with him. Many people did which meant that most people in the organisation were close to someone who could take them to see JP whenever they wanted or needed.

I met Mark Gillett in the kitchen area outside of his office when he went to get his own coffee. We chatted whilst we waited for the kettle to boil. Jamie O’Shaunessey, a good friend and mentor in the ways of Skype, told me that if Mark’s door was open, Jamie would pop his head round the door to see Mark was available for a chat. Word gets around.

David Turner held a town hall where he acted as the compere to introduce a number of people who had done interesting work. He facilitated the discussion rather than tell everyone about his plans and what “he” had done. He made it easier for people to find the experts that they needed to speak to. He also elevated the other speakers to his level.

Jim Bannister had an office. He turned it into a meeting room that could be booked through his assistant. He would sit out with the team, joining in jokes and discussions. Jim would use his office for a private conversations or like any other meeting room.

“Hiding in my cave” – Practices that increase the power distance index

Power Breakfasts allow a carefully selected group of junior employees with “potential” to meet with an executive. They get to hear important things from the executive’s mouth and have the opportunity to ask questions. Power Breakfasts re-inforce the importance of the executive, and reinforce the idea that only special people can speak to them, and only in carefully orchestrated circumstances. Meeting the executive is a “prize” for good performance and behaviour.

Traditional Town Halls are an opportunity for executives to reaffirm their “rock star” status and share their vision for the organisation. Its a chance for executives to talk to the masses, however its not a comfortable place for the masses to speak to the executive.

Cerberus was the three headed dog that quarded the gates of Hades. Many executives use their personal assistants to guard access to themselves, making it impossible for anyone to access them in an unstructured way without warning. This makes it hard for someone to raise a difficult matter as their manager might find out about the meeting and challenge them about it.

A closed door says “do not disturb”. Executives who keep their doors closed when they do not need to are sending a strong message, you do not have anything important for them to hear that cannot be filtered through the hierarchy. Executives should manage by walking around. get out of their office and just move around the organisation.

The Royal Visit is announced in advance allowing people the chance to prepare a carefully orchestrated presentation. This reinforces the importance of executives and increases the power distance index. There is a joke that the queen thinks the world smells of paint because everywhere she goes, one hundred yards in front of her someone is painting a wall. It means they are never confronted with the real issues people face. Instead, executives should turn up unannounced, sit at an empty desk without fanfare and just stay there for a few days conducting their business and seeing what goes on around them. After a few days people let their guard down and act as they normally do rather than be “on special behaviour”.

I was once insulted by an executive in a meeting. I refused to agree with them because they had an opinion and I had experience that their opinion was wrong. They never apologised, we never spoke again.

Your turn

What are the practices you have seen? Please share a story or two in the comments.

About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

2 responses to ““Go to the Gemba” and the Power Distance Index

  • Mark Dalgarno (@markdalgarno)

    One of the best examples of this was when I was at Redgate. Every week, one of the two Joint CEOs – Neil Davidson and Simon Galbraith – would sit in a tiny meeting room for a few hours. Anyone in the company could book a slot with them to talk about anything. They may not solve an issue you had but they could help you find someone who could or help you figure it out for yourself. I was in there every week for a while when I first started at the company and it helped me ‘land’ in the organisation at quite a senior level without having had the benefit of having been promoted through the organisation. I recommend this approach as a way of empowering people too.

  • Mark Dalgarno (@markdalgarno)

    I have another Redgate example. Every week Neil or Simon would Go to the Gemba – with a whiteboard tour of teams in a specific part of the company. Over 5-6 weeks they would get around every team – including the operational teams – not just product delivery.

    Managers were strongly encouraged not to lead their teams when Neil or Simon came around but to let the people working on the projects directly talk about what their current goals were, how they were progressing against those goals, what was holding them back, what was helping them succeed. I saw new team members gradually becoming comfortable talking to Neil and Simon over a few whiteboard tours and Neil and Simon getting a better understanding of the work being down at the coalface.

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