The first of an occasional series in which I say more about the lessons some great people taught me about improving work through lean and systems thinking.  Previously, I said

Leadership is critical.  Without leadership, thorough-going transformation through lean/systems thinking is just not possible and that leadership has to come right from the top – as in my tale of Dave, the chief executive.

Re-reading what I wrote about Dave, I was surprised how little I said about him as a leader.  It boiled down to this

  • before he became a CE he’d been what I called a traditional director of finance, a safe pair of hands for a number of years but frankly not that inspiring
  • visiting a Japanese car manufacturer he had one of those “light bulb” moments when something clicks and the world is re-arranged for you forever – his was the right of assembly line workers to stop the line if something was wrong and the empowerment and trust it implied, a million miles from the command-and-control and blame culture of British work
  • the understanding that rather than employ experts to make the improvements required what was needed was to provide people with the understanding and support to do that themselves
  • he understood the good stuff is never easy.

These are some of the other things he did to lead lean and systems thinking in his organisation

  • hired the right consultants to transfer understanding and skills into the council, supported them and ensured he got great value for money from them
  • led his management team in a workshop (two whole days) on what it was all about
  • required them to drive it in their own departments and kept it on his own management team’s agenda
  • explained it to the politicians (this was after all a local authority) and got their buy-in
  • constantly visited front line staff and project teams to encourage, congratulate, celebrate and endorse the improvements they’d achieved
  • corrected inappropriate behaviour by managers (it happens)
  • chose the right person to drive the whole process on his behalf and supported him and his team of facilitators, making them feel the special people they were
  • used success to enhance the reputation of the council – with his peers, other councils, and the local business community, and through applying for (and winning) external awards.

The net result of all this was a sense of drive, commitment and buzz about the place.  People knew where they were going and how they were going to get there.

You can read your own messages into all this.

I’m tempted to generalise further but leadership is hugely studied (the lazy researcher’s tool of a Google search throws up 33 million [!] returns to “leadership book”, 24.3 million to “leadership quote” and 4.6 million to “leadership theory”).

Since I like stories so much I’ll confine myself to a few additional anecdotes from which you can draw your own conclusions

  • on another occasion Dave and his management team were trying to work out what values leaders in the organisation should adopt.  They all baulked – wrongly – at humility, confusing it in their minds with words like meek, mild, humble and ineffective.  Ironically, in his subsequent and genuine conversion to empowering staff to make improvements to their own work, Dave demonstrated humility in one of the most powerful ways a leader can but many find difficult – by accepting that other people in the organisation knew better than him about most things
  • leadership is not about a whole heap of technical understanding.  Several years into his job Dave thought of applying for a CE’s post in a larger organisation.  One reason he eventually decided not to were the 28 core competencies required of candidates.  Core competencies do not a leader make
  • Dave had a director with a no-nonsense reputation in the council.  His favourite phrase was I don’t care about processes.  I’m interested in outcomes.  It took the two day management team workshop to make him realise he couldn’t have been more wrong
  • lastly, we all have leaders we admire.  When Dave’s management team discussed this the usual range of role models was cited – Mandela, Churchill, Alex Ferguson, “my granny” and others.  Another director who said Adolf Hitler (it was surely pure coincidence that he was an accountant) was not amongst the first to embrace lean and systems thinking.
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