Years ago I visited a large electronics recycling facility. The CEO was showing me around their operations when I paid him a compliment which resulted in a revelation.
I’d been impressed by how little inventory there was in the sorting and striping processes. A few mini-dumpsters of electronics in the dock area and a few hundred laptops stacked like bricks. WIP was neatly contained in kanban bins next to workbenches.
The CEO smiled and agreed. Said they’d worked really hard to get it that way and had achieved an incredibly low inventory level. But I noticed he made an unintentional glance upward as he spoke.
I looked up when he turned to walk down the aisle. What I’d assumed to be the ceiling was actually the underside of an overhead storage grid. One with hundreds of boxes on it, covering the length and width of the operations area. The boxes were full of electronics waste, cables hanging over the rims.
Apparently it was called “pre-processing staging.” I called it a crazy amount of raw materials inventory. Almost something that would qualify for its own A&E Hoarders episode.
It was fascinating to keep looking up, but I wondered how often other businesses do the same thing: Hiding things they don’t want to see, just out of the normal line of sight, pretending they don’t exist.
All it takes is a consensus about what’s hidden to make it so.
What do we hide? It doesn’t have to be raw materials or WIP.
It could be a line on a budget that everyone skips over in reviews. An unspoken policy or something strange in the organizational or reporting structures. A major work-around in a process. Customer’s with unusually low margins. A strategy that seems to make sense but is never discussed where it matters.
I’ve found those hidden things in commission structures, sales forecasts, project timelines and portfolios, strategic plans, and even in process maps.
As it turns out, for those who’ll brave a look, many hidden things conceal major opportunities to improve margins and profits. Or to increase engagement. Even new lines of business.
Often clients will hire me, or other consultants, to bring a bright flashlight and shine it around, even in the overhead storage areas. Instead of AA’s my flashlight runs on questions like “Why and How?”, a few varieties of “Really?”, and “Are you OK walking, white-boarding, or mapping this out?”
And since everyone knows consultants are there only for a time, and mostly trying to be useful, we can get some interesting answers to those questions.
Then, suddenly, the hidden isn’t.
What happens next? Sometimes nothing, sometimes relief, sometimes work. But there’s aways a sense that clarity and truth in one thing can spread to others, and the organization is healthier and more fit each time it happens.
So, to steal a credit card tagline: “What’s hiding at your company?”