Chapter 17 – A Smile Is A Curve In The Road To Flow
You have just moved to a new leadership role at your company. Your new boss wants to discuss your transition plan and how you expect to meet the challenges ahead of you.
Here’s the thing: only a chosen few people replace world class operators. Instead, you, Ms. Back Office Barb, are usually hired after something blows up. If the event has enough adverse impact on a company, it exposes a need for real improvement. A typical consequence of such an event is newfound attention and resources to remediate the problem. Seize this opportunity! The period after something fails at a company is one of the few times you get to inject a vision of how to do things that previously could not be done.
During this period, no single relationship is as important as the one with your boss. You cannot implement any plan without her active support. Therefore, you need to align your diagnosis of the situation and your vision of end state outcomes with hers. Meet with her often and constantly clarify key personnel, project, resource, and measurement matters. Learn how she prefers to communicate. Does she react to emotion or conflict? How does she respond to adversity? Does she want to be educated on technical matters. What form of analysis does she prefer? How deeply does she want to delve into operations? Assess how she works and tailor your style so that it does not conflict with hers. Send an agenda to her in advance of every meeting. And make sure that you get some wins that matter to her as soon as possible.
Assuming that you get support from you boss, your first three to six months of work play out as successive stages of change.
Stage one, the fire hose phase, is when you re-assess everything you learned about the company’s strategy, structure, performance, culture and people before you were hired. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that the current state of affairs is how it was explained to you before you took the job. Spend sufficient time reviewing current processes. Identify the real boundaries of responsibility for your team. Find out what is most important to your customers, both internal and external. Learning the numbers and the organization chart is just part of your education. Take time to discover the root causes of current pain points. Compare the current state of how things get done to the company’s strategic aspirations. It will help you to develop a more nuanced understanding of the organization’s weaknesses as well as the strengths that can be built upon.
Stage Two, your vision: channel the organization’s psychology into productive directions. Introduce a mechanism that reinforces the case for change, a meeting that brings every contributing team together to examine each end-to-end process (e.g., order to cash, procure to pay, etc.). A process review meeting enables participants to assess current practices and identify performance gaps, defects, and misalignments in organizational staffing. Participants can then decide upon a course of action to solve problems. When performed correctly, the meeting helps individuals develop a collective understanding of all inputs, activities, outputs, and customer requests for each process. Another benefit of the meeting is that you get to observe the group’s dynamics and learn who has influence.
A conspicuous feature of Stage Two is how you promote and clarify your vision for the future state of the organization. A goal should be that you enthusiastically communicate it so often that everyone, including the extensions of the team, your vendors and partners, is clear about what you intend to achieve. Everyone should be clear about how their collaborative efforts are linked to improved customer satisfaction.
Any organizational redesign will have an intense and personal impact on employees. It’s likely to change whom they report to, whom they work with, and even how work gets done. Set expectations that these changes will alter the culture of the team. Schedule regular one-on-ones with your directs. Follow a pre-established agenda but allow them to lead. Give team members the opportunity to ask questions that enable you to explain the rationale behind your vision.
Explain why the “Lean” methodology encourages those who do the work to be the architects of how that work is performed, not to mention that they should also be in charge of how the work is measured. Bring in a Lean expert to teach employees how to “see” why everything done within a process, every single activity, has a consequence elsewhere. Let the expert demonstrate how flow, the absence of waste (e.g., errors, delays, etc.), bottlenecks or unnecessary variability, cannot occur if individuals try to improve one phase of work in isolation; any problem must be considered in its effect on the entire end-to-end process.
After you have been talking about a change for a few weeks, it’s all too easy to forget that many employees might remain in the dark. Your success will also depend on your ability to influence people directly outside of your direct line of control. Setting up end-to-end process diagrams will help you identify individuals whose support is essential for success. Schedule regular one-on-ones with these individuals.
Stage three, Goal Setting, requires the team to set specific and measurable stretch goals that are bound by time. The goals should be established using two criteria: what most needs improvement and what can have a big financial or customer impact in a short period of time. Employees who do the work must then estimate start-to-results timeline targets, and the related effort and investment required to realize a cost reduction or quality improvement. The extended team, including vendors and partners, should consider the resources needed to implement a plan that will not adversely affect your overall business performance (how you will drive the bus and change wheels at the same time). Don’t fall into the trap of letting someone making an “incentive bonus” set your project timeline targets. Most processes, at a minimum, need a 12-24 month timeline to attain sustainable improvement. However, look for a quick win within ninety days. This can often be in the procure-to-pay or the commission process, where small improvements can result in substantial increases in customer satisfaction.
Stage four, Implementation, is when teams confront how far they must go to improve the quality of their work. Because they did not know what they did not know, the same lack of knowledge that deluded them as to the quality of their work also made them satisfied with their knowledge. When they recalibrate, reality can be a punch in the face. Like the shape of a smile, people slide down one side of the smile curve from happy and ignorant to the bottom of the curve where they realize how far they have fallen. At this point some team members may quit. Some will become defensive. And some, the ones with negative mind-sets, will try to prevent change from occurring.
This is when you need to introduce a message of constant iterative improvement that can build the steps up to the other side of the smile. Employees thrive when they see tangible proof of improvement every day and the value of their work. So, in addition to communicating the compelling reasons for change, reinforce a mindset that employees are on a journey up the road to mastery of their craft. Build a project plan that includes short quick sprints. The sprints allow iterations to the plan that not only clears up misallocations, but enables immediate feedback, allowing you to adjust plans as situations or customer priorities change. They also enable the team to measure cycle times for activities, especially intra-company processes that transfer data between locations and functions. If names are attached to each impediment or issue, speeding things up, offloading backlog items, or eliminating unnecessary work will enable the team to recognize how quickly they can improve their performance.
Mind-sets are fluid. Once the team gets a taste of constant iterative improvement, it becomes a drug that they cannot live without. Their desire for improvement is what makes the Lean Methodology so powerful. Lean gives people the tools and the language to master their work. It becomes the story that displaces your previous cultural narrative. Stage five, continuous learning and improvement, begins when a new collective mindset emerges from the team, when they take the initiative to eliminate any impediments to one piece flow through their processes.
- Do you and your boss agree on a vision for your organization and team? Do you agree on what changes need to be made and the priorities of the organization?
- Does the current structure of your organization need to be changed? Is the structure aligned with your work processes?
- Have you identified the real boundaries of responsibility for your team? Do team members know who is responsible and accountable for each stage of a process? Do they know who needs to be consulted or informed if they plan to change the process or if an issue develops?
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