Toyota built one of the most effective management processes for the 21st century in the Toyota Production System. By empowering the workforce to systematically resolve issues and make improvements they generated a cycle of continuous improvement. The model translated in the United States is Lean, which people commonly confuse for six-sigma. The beauty behind Lean starts with the simplicity of the methodology continues with supported outcomes and leaves high levels of employee empowerment.
Having the opportunity to run Lean workshops for numerous organizations there was one key performance metric on if the initiative would be successful or not. That metric focused on if the senior leadership would support the outcomes of the event. One of the main Lean events forms a team of process owners and workers. The team then process maps the current state, identifies issues, performs causal analysis, designs the future state and develops the action plan.
It is a simple structure intended to engage the people who are affected by the problem-solving process. At the end of the event the team out briefs to the senior leadership with the aim for project approval and support. If senior leadership agreed most of the time, the Lean program overall was effective. If senior management typically did not support the outcomes, the Lean program never lasted more than 18-months. The key point where participants quit engaging in the process when they knew that no action would be taken.
Teams solve problems, act, and effect change. Hence, for a team to be effective, they must feel empowered to enact their solutions. Organizational leaders understand that the best insights come from the process owners and the people closest to the work. However, biases can keep leaders from releasing their authority to effectively solve problems. External consultants have known this for years and routinely ask the workers about the problems to formulate their understanding of the organization. In turn, the consultant reports back to management with their findings while collecting a sizable fee.
This best practice requires the least amount of effort yet can be the hardest to accomplish. Simply engage the organization in ideation and problem-solving. Then follow through and implement their solutions. To do so requires the intestinal fortitude to say yes to the team and to release control. A high level of trust that they make good decisions needs to be established, then the role of the manager shifts to one of a coach.
For a leader to support their team’s solutions, they must create good ideas. However, bad ideas that aren’t workable point to the ineffectiveness of the manager. When solutions are not feasible, the leader did not give the team enough perspective before commissioning the team. Other times the team may propose a solution that is too drastic. This embodies a change that would inherently change paradigms and work models. If the leader doesn’t implement those solutions it points to their weaknesses as well for not understanding how to transform an organization.
When a leader doesn’t implement a team’s solution, apathy builds. The team will eventually choose to opt-out of events. Members will choose to not participate. They will realize that they are simple tokens just for appearances and that their insights provide zero value.
However, when a manager releases control and leverages the minds of many, they become a leader. By using multiple insights instead of just their own, they build a better perspective for the entire organization. The company implements stronger solutions. Employees buy-in and invest in the organization. Then a cycle of continuous improvement and engagement starts to spread outside the cubicle walls infecting the teams that they interact with.
An interesting mental exercise attempts to look at the team on the asset sheet instead of on the balance ledger. It helps to change the normal thinking of people having to be managed to simply gratitude for their commitment and efforts. Alongside this gratefulness is an appreciation for their insights. Recognition for the value they provide follows.
William Bradford led the first American enterprise of the Plymouth Colony. Pilgrim life experienced tough and harsh times losing half of the colony to illness during the first year. By 1621 the Colony was considered a failed experiment. Relationships with the Wampanoag tribe grew during the year leading to the first Thanksgiving feast. However, it wasn’t until two years later when a significant drought had ended where Bradford declared another day of Thanksgiving to express their gratitude for the rain that had come.
The event was used as an opportunity to bond the Colony together, to get everyone’s feedback in this new democracy on how to move forward. It helped to mentally turn the tide from struggle to appreciation. George Washington used the same approach in 1789 for a young nation declaring a Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving. Abraham Lincoln copied the approach as well in 1863 in the Civil War making it an official Holiday. Each of these leaders knew that communal gratitude would help people buy into the dream of America and empower them to make the experiment of democracy a success.
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