I’m gonna say something I’m not supposed to say about Continuous Improvement Leadership. Don’t be mad at me; and if you can’t help it, just remember that I still love you – and promise to make it up to you later. Here it is: WE CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT LEADERS ARE THE WORSE AT PRACTICING WHAT WE PREACH. There it is. I put it out there in the universe – understanding there will be a price to pay for my unfiltered candor. But at least hear me out to understand why I say this.
We love to talk about why its so important for others to follow Lean practices, but we rarely follow them ourselves. We talk about why our followers aren’t sustaining our 5S programs – but our own spaces are disorganized.
We preach that issues need to be brought to the surface so that they can be quickly resolved – but we fail to address our own flaws in a constructive way. One that incorporates the feedback of our customers.
Then we show metrics of how our factories, subordinates, or business partners are performing – but we rarely show metrics of our own productivity and effectiveness.
Why is it that we hold ourselves to such a different standard than everyone else? Do we not believe that our own behaviors and actions matter? We watch them – but do we not know that they are also watching (and mirroring) us?
What is Continuous Improvement Leadership
I’m going to share an expression that I’m sure you’ve never heard before: “do as I say and not as I do.” Okay, of course you’ve heard that before, I was just checking to see if you were paying attention. This is one of the most destructive expressions to the discipline of leadership to has ever been uttered. It’s human nature to mimic what we see others do – not always what they say. One of the most important jobs of a leader is to model the behaviors that they wish for others to immolate. In failing to do so, we are making undisciplined choices; and making it too easy for others to rationalize doing the same.
Continuous Improvement leadership means to use your life, in and outside of work, as a model of operational excellence. Lean, Six Sigma, TPM, and some of the other CI discipline are essentially a set of capabilities that we want to develop in others. But can we honestly say that we have developed these capabilities within ourselves? Sure we can talk the talk, and facilitate meetings and training classes on Lean concepts, but have we eliminated waste from our own daily processes? Are we constantly seeking opportunities to be more effective in what we do – and taking action against those opportunities everyday?
Why Continuous Improvement Leadership Fails
It’s no secret that over 70% of Continuous Improvement initiatives fail. I will say that the reason why this is happening is a bit of a secret but I have my suspicions.
Organizations are attracted to Lean because they hear that it has helped companies dramatically cut costs, improve quality, decrease lead times, and a whole host of other goodness. They think, “oh, if we did Lean, it would produce the same benefits for us.” This is another prime example of how we love to mimic the behaviors of others, thinking we are next in line to enjoy the spoils. Don’t be ashamed – its natural. The problem is that when others post these phenomenal benefits, they don’t show the painstaking, behind the scenes, work that went into the transformation. They make it seem like it was soooo easy – and it will be so easy for you too. All you gotta do is use this process and “presto”, all of a sudden you’re a captain of your industry.
As CI leaders, we have to build the capability in ourselves that we wish to see in others. For example, if we’re saying that our operators need to be autonomous from the maintenance function (Autonomous Maintenance), then leaders need the capability to go out on the shop floor and make minor repairs to eliminate process defects, lubricate motors, and break down equipment to be cleaned and reassembled. The lack of capability within leadership is the source of the lack of capability on the shop floor.
How to Improve Your Continuous Improvement Leadership
Let’s do a quick and dirty self-assessment to see if we’re providing the leadership that our people deserve. It’s an easy assessment and only takes 30 seconds to get through. But it requires some honest reflection on your own performance. Here it is – just 3 questions regarding Continuous Improvement:
- Do you know what needs to be done?
- Can you do it – every time – to the same degree that you expect from others?
- Are you doing it in your area of ownership?
These three questions address the biggest factors of Continuous Improvement Leadership: Knowledge, Capability, and Actual Behaviors. If you can answer yes to all of these, congratulations! That’s either fantastic – or you’re just not being honest with yourself. If you answered no to any (or all) of them, then I applaud your honesty; at least you know where to start to turn the ship in the right direction.
One of the CI tenants is high visibility of performance, especially in areas that are important to get right. We need to keep one eye on those we lead to steer them in the right direction, and the other eye on ourselves to ensure we’re setting the right example. CI Leaders don’t need to have Lean in their job title. Anyone who works in an organization that practices Continuous Improvement, and whose behaviors could influence someone else’s behavior, is a leader. I’m pretty sure that includes you, whether you are the CEO or the shop floor janitor. Your actions matter. Be the change you wish to see in your organization. The most impactful thing you can do for your company is mastering yourself. Others will be inspired to follow based on the example you set.
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