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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Leadership in the Workplace



I have mentioned that leadership places a crucial role in bringing out the best in people and the organization at the workplace.  We will explore the nature and role of leadership.
I have explored leadership with clients by contrasting it to management.  Management focuses on maintaining the states quo. This is important.  Organizations need to have consistency.  There need to be standard procedures.  Value-adding processes cannot accomplish their purpose without support around people, machines, methods, materials and measurement. These support systems need to be managed.
Leadership is focused on change.  If we want to move the organization to a new way of operating that is lean, world class, and brings out the best in people and systems, we often need to change the way we do things.  Many of my posts so far have been about things that need to change and how they need to be changed.
I have also mentioned that change often does not stick.  New habits are hard to learn, especially when support systems do not change to support the new ways of working.  We need leaders in the organization to get this change to take place.
If we think about people in our lives who we would consider leaders, as I have done with workshop participants, we come to realize that they do not simply “make us” do things differently, they have an effect on how we think and how we feel, and it is through their effect on our thinking and feeling that they lead us to change our way of doing.
We usually believe that change comes from analyzing a situation, thinking about what we have analyzed and as a result changing the way that we do something. John Kotter and Dan Cohen conducted interviews with hundreds of people in organizations around the world and found that large-scale change happens by impacting feeling rather than thinking. Big chance takes place from seeing then feeling.
Chip Heath and Dan Heath cite this study in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, illustrating the point with a story of a manager who wanted to change the purchasing system of a large company.  He realized that the company made over 400 separate purchases of gloves.  There were many different kinds of gloves, but sometimes identical gloves were purchased from different suppliers by different plants at prices that could vary by several dollars per pair for exactly the same gloves.
This manager acquired a sample of every glove the company used, including duplicates at different prices.  He put a price tag on each glove and piled them on a conference table at corporate headquarters. Top management saw, felt, and acted to change the purchasing of gloves for the company, as well as taking a hard look at the purchasing procedures in general.
A spreadsheet with the various models of gloves and their corresponding prices would not have had the same impact.  This was a leadership act, to get major change accomplished in the purchasing system.
I worked with a plant manager at an engine plant who was very effective.  On his walk through the plant he would notice problems, and immediately have supervisors and employees see and feel the need for changes in practices.  The plant had a positive atmospheric pressure to keep dust out of the engine machining and assembly areas. 
When a large door was left open, the effect of the positive pressure was not only diminished for a section of the plant, it could be reversed.  When he saw an open door, he would search for the people who had or might have left it open.  He would demonstrate with a strip of paper that air was coming into the plant, so that they could see it.  He would then explain the critical importance of not allowing dust to get into the engine. 
He would never express anger.  In this and other situations he would always try to show people on the spot why something was important, helping them see it and feel the importance. 
Another plant manager, in another engine plant would frequently take his staff out to the plant and have them look at a problem, for example the combining of iron and aluminum machining chips, significantly reducing their recycling value.  Chips that were made separately were then combined unnecessarily in the containers picked up by the recycler. He would ask them to show the supervisors and workers the problem as he had done it with them and explain the added cost to the company of doing this.
A leader in a company trying to become lean needs to help people see then need for a change.  A forklift driver who finds it easiest never to get down from his driver’s seat, merely delivering large amounts of material, may need to be able to see the importance of breaking large batches into small batches replenished frequently in order for the value-adding operation to operate in a lean fashion. His feeling that it will just mean more work for him needs to be addressed.
A work group may fear (feel) that a change will permanently make their work more difficult. I have found it effective to have a leader who will say.  We are going to try some things to improve the way we work. Some will work better than others, and I am sure some will not work at all. In that case we need to step back and find an alternative.  In the worst case, we will put things back the way they were before we started.
In the worst case we can put things back the way they were, but I have yet to find it necessary to do that.  This resolves a lot of resistance.  We are going to experiment. The kaizen approach gives priority to low-cost, no-cost changes that can be replaced if they do not work out. 

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