Monthly Archive : August 2008
There is a noticeable shift taking place in the organization that I think is very positive. Over the last year the leadership culture of the organization has made some small but very important transitions that I believe will continue. One of the most noticeable of these changes relates to the transparency of leadership. Leaders are becoming far more upfront and honest about where the problems are and why the exist. Additionally, leaders are far more transparent about what they don’t know and what they are struggling to learn. The conversations are far more real and substancial. A couple of months ago James Womack visited our organization and made a comment that stuck with me. He said the first step toward creating a system of accountability is transparency. As problems become visible and acceptable people can get busy solving them as opposed to trying to find the person to blame or just ignoring that they are there in the first place. We are heading in this direction.
I remember the first time I attend a leadership conference at the organization about three years ago. I walked away from the event really frustrated with leadership because the messages they shared seemed so disconnected from the reality of the work I was doing each day. You know the type of event, leaders standing up confidently in front of their peers throwing around buzz words and all the “right answers.” What Pascal Dennis refers to as “the happy talk.” Basically, we got told what we wanted to hear as opposed to what we really needed to hear. Its a lot harder to talk about problems and deliver disturbing news then to talk about everything that is going great.
Now contrast that with a similar event that I attended this Friday. Individuals and teams spent time in front of their peers showing their “dirty laundry” and discussing some of the bigger problems that we still don’t know how to solve. Leaders were no longer pretending to have all the answers and often talked about the PDCA process and learning as we move forward. There was a tension I could feel in the room that I think was healthy. A tension created from a culture that is in transition and opposing mental models at play. The transparency can be quite unsettling to all of us. Especially when we are used to our leaders telling us that everything is going great and getting better. Something in the past that we often heard, knew was untrue, but were thankful that we were able to dodge confronting some of the harder issues. It clear that it will not be easy moving forward and there is a lot of hard work to do. But, in reality it has never been easy, the work has always been hard and the issues have always been there. The difference is if we can be real and transparent about these issue we might actually be able to do something about them. Like I said in the beginning small, but important.
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I got a chance to take advantage of summer last week and heading back to the east coast for a family reunion. I have a large family with a lot of diversity, from all parts of the country working in all types of industries. Really smart people which meant a lot of good conversations and debates. Thus I had a chance to spend a lot of nights drinking beer and sharing stories. And boy did I get a chance to give a half dozen different versions of a Lean elevator pitch. Almost everyone I talked with asked me what it is that I do. I never realized how hard it would be to explain Lean to a group of smart folks that have never heard of it.
Each of the conversations went something like this:
I tried to desribe to them that it is my job to support leaders in the improvement of the management processes of the organization and got back blank stares. I then talked about my coaching work with executives and when asked what I coach them on I often was stuck with saying “almost everything.” Once again blank stares. Then I would talk about my work to realign the organization around it value streams and realized I was really losing them. I would finally give up tell them that it was my job to help leaders improve their processes through the application of quality improvement tools, which I would often get a reply back of “oh yeah, we did that at my company, but it never really worked.”
I am wondering if other Lean practitioners have had a similar challenge in discribing what they do? Why is it so hard to explain what we do?
The learnings and principles of Lean are so broad that they cut across everything that an organization does. The thinking runs so counter to what people have been taught that trying to explain it is close to impossible in a single sitting. This is why love working in Lean, it is so broad and comprehensive that the learning will never be complete. It takes years just to master a small part of what there is to know. After several failed attempts at an explanation to family members it was easy for me to describe a couple of tools and pass it off as what I do for a living. This was really unfullfilling to do. I felt like I was selling myself short, and selling Lean short. I spend a lot of time teaching leaders that lean is not just about tools, but I am quick to tell my family just the opposite. An interesting challenge I don’t have an answer for.
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This last year has been a transition year for the organization as we have worked hard to move away from our management by objective (MBO) roots. In many ways we are still living and will continue to live with somewhat of an MBO hangover. During our Mid-Year review we spent a lot of time with the senior leadership reflecting on this transition. It was exciting to see that without exception each member of the team could see the value of the new system we are creating based on Hoshin Kanri and it was clear that we will be staying the course. During the Mid-Year review there was also a lot of reflection on what critical adjustments we will make to our system this coming year as we develop our next A3′s. One of the major themes that was recognized as a cause of this hangover is our continued reliance on senior leadership to not only define the goals for the organization, but also the means by which they will be achieved (often in the form of projects). As a result of this reflection the senior leadership team has decided that during this fall’s planning cycle they will focus on goal creation and allow the lower levels in the organization to define the means.
Simple right? Only in concept. For decades the MBO management practices have been ingrained into the way that our organization functions. Each layer of management has learned to look to layer above them to know not only what they should be doing, but also how they should be doing it. Decisions must often go all the way to the top of the organization even when they are operational and could have been best answered by the people closer to the work. This type of system creates a strange dynamic within the management ranks where managers get comfortable with the security of not having the authority to make decisions, yet, at the same time they get frustrated by the lack of responsibility they have for making improvement. The side effects are many including lack of engagement, pent up creativity and frustration with the lack of flexibility of the system.
This reflection by our senior leadership team is an important one and I cannot overstate how revolutionary this change will be to our organization if we a successful. It will take a long time for this hangover to go completely away, but I can imagine a year from now writing a blog entry that talks about just how far we have come. When teams realize they have authority and responsiblity for improvement it does not take them long to start moving forward really fast.
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