One snowstorm. Three leaders. One lesson in lean management.

Daniel Markovitz , TimeBack Management

The snow fell again in New York City this past Friday, and with it came a new spate of commentaries about how Mayor Bloomberg mishandled the big blizzard on December 26.

For those who don’t know the story, in the wake of a 20-inch snowfall, Manhattan streets were plowed quickly, but streets in the outer boroughs (Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island) remained unplowed for days. The mayor apologized, promised a thorough post-mortem to understand the root causes of the poor municipal response ... and then demoted and reassigned three people. Thee mayor’s approval ratings are now at their lowest point in his administration.

In New Jersey, where up to 31 inches of snow fell, Governor Chris Christie is taking heat for vacationing at Disney World with his family instead of returning to the state to help with its recovery efforts. He’s made matters worse by defending his decision to put his responsibility to his family first: “I wouldn’t change the decision even if I could do it right now. I had a great five days with my children. I promised that.” The governor’s nearly bullet-proof image, constructed during a year of tough leadership and emphasis on taking responsibility, has taken a beating.

Then there’s Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J. Mayor Booker was not only present during the blizzard, he personally responded to several calls for help, showing up with a shovel to help some motorists who were stuck in the snow and bringing diapers to others. The mayor kept up a constant stream of tweets so that people knew what he was doing, even asking citizens to send him tweets letting him know where help was needed. The mayor is now a hero in Newark, where he faced a difficult re-election last year.

The PR experts will undoubtedly begin talking about best practices for crisis management (if they haven’t already). But from a lean leadership perspective, what strikes me is the fact that only one of these leaders went to “the gemba” — the streets where the work was actually being done.

You could argue that a mayor has better things to do with his or her time than shovel snow (that’s why we have children, after all). But I disagree. People need to see (and in the case of Mayor Booker, hear via Twitter) that their leaders are willing and able to work in the trenches.

Of course, Mayors Bloomberg and Booker, and Governor Christie have other, higher-level, leadership tasks to ensure that these service failures don’t recur. But it’s important for all people in the state, the city, or any organization to see that their leaders are present and doing everything they can to help ease their pain. And if the problem is something that requires specialized skills that the leader doesn’t have — shutting down a nuclear reactor, tunneling into a mine shaft, performing surgery — then the leader should be supporting those that do have the critical skills by bringing them coffee and donuts, or cold water, or fresh bandages.

It’s no coincidence that the salient memory of Rudy Giuliani is him standing atop the World Trade Center rubble, while the lasting image of George Bush during Katrina is him peering through the window of Air Force One several thousand feet above New Orleans.

No one expected Giuliani to spend all day, everyday at the World Trade Center. No one expected Mayor Booker to spend all day, everyday shoveling snow. But people do expect their leaders to at least be present where the work is being done for some amount of time.

Lean bloggers and teachers often talk about the need to get out of the corner office and the conference room and get to the gemba as part of their standard work. That need is even greater in an emergency.

One snowstorm. Three leaders. One lesson.

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About the Author

Dan Markovitz is the founder and president of TimeBack Management, and is a faculty member of the Lean Enterprise Institute. He has worked with Qualcomm, WL Go...