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Leadership’s Role in Process Improvement

Businessman drawing a flowchartThose of you who know me well know I am not a process guy.  The notion of process can make me physically ill.  That said, there’s a huge role for leadership in process improvement.  I’d argue that without good leadership, any process you try to improve will fail.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Kevin Eikenberry (author of From Bud to Boss) for over an hour on this topic.  Today I’ll provide an excerpt of that conversation and at the end of the post I’ll provide you with a link for the actual audio file of our conversation.

So, here are a few thoughts on how leadership plays a critical role in process improvement as an excerpt from my conversation with Kevin.

Kevin Eikenberry: So let’s start by talking about why process improvement is so critical for leaders from your perspective with a variety of experiences that you have got. So let’s talk about process improvement from your perspective.

Mike Figliuolo: Yeah. You know, as leaders you can go in and you can manage, and we have got to parse management and leadership, and you manage things and you lead people.

So when you are new to a role as a leader or even if you have been doing it for a while inherently you have got certain processes that you are responsible for making sure run smoothly. The thing that ends up differentiating people is whether you sort of take that process at face and just make sure it doesn’t blow up, or if you question everything about it and seek to make it better, make it faster, make it cheaper, make the quality higher.

To do that you have got to galvanize people and get then to think differently. You have got to make them change or make them want to change, and we all know how we fear change.

So process improvement squarely falls in the belly of leadership, because it’s not just the process you are changing, you are changing the way your folks end up doing things, which inherently has to change behaviors and that’s squarely in that leadership camp.

Kevin: Well, no question about that. And so one of the things Mike that we have talked a lot about this month with everybody, with all our members, is the role that we play in supporting and giving our teams the reins to work on process improvement themselves and giving the resources and the tools to work on those improvements. So what’s your experience been in terms of how individuals that are a part of the process, working on the process, how can we as leaders support them in that change piece that you just defined so accurately?

Mike: Yeah. I think you have got to understand the people’s motivations when they are part of a process, because I think you are running into two kinds of folks. There are the ones who, I like saying, they like to make the donuts, if you remember that classic Dunkin’ Donuts commercial, where the guy just comes in every morning and says “it’s time to make the donuts” and he is happy with that lot in life. And you do have a lot of people out there who just want to come in and have that stability, manage the process, and then go home.

Then there is the group of folks who are sort of like you as the leader who want things to be better. And the thing you have got to do is differentiate between those two groups, because clearly the ones in the former group are the ones that you are going to have to manage through the change and make the case for, and if they are reporting to you, you are sort of upsetting their apple cart.

And then for the folks who want to change the process, those are the ones where you are going to need to put a box around them so they can’t hurt themselves or hurt the process or hurt the organization, but at the same time let them operate freely within that box.

A big part of your change effort needs to be corralling that latter group. And the best things that I have seen in terms of doing that are saying, “look, here is the defined scope of what you can and cannot touch. Here are the steps in the process that you are going to be able to change and here are the ones you are not going to be able to. Here are sort of the parameters within which you have to operate, be it a budgetary number or if there are operational metrics that I want you to stay within a certain threshold, and the burden is on you to make the case for change.”

So when they come back to you and say, I changed this parameter, I changed this step in the process, and inherently they need to conclude some form of measurement along with that to demonstrate that they had a positive impact. And that measurement can’t just be on that step, it needs to be on the entire process, so you don’t get those wonderful unintended consequences.

And then you have to give them the ability to make their case for change and be willing as the leader to back them if they had a successful change they want to make, you have got to get them the resources and then you are going to have to help them with that change management exercise with that group of folks who just want to make the donuts.

Kevin: Well, that’s making me tired just thinking about it, Mike.

Mike: We both know this leadership stuff isn’t easy, Kevin.

If you would like to listen to the entire hour-long interview, you can do so by CLICKING HERE.  Kevin and I had a great conversation.  I hope you’ll take the time to listen and learn how leadership is a critical factor in successful process improvement.

- If you’re serious about improving your leadership skills, grab yourself a copy of One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership. There are plenty of suggestions in there for how you can lead your people more effectively. CLICK HERE to get your copy.

- Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

3 Responses to “Leadership’s Role in Process Improvement”

  1. RickGriggs says:

    First, let me say I didn’t listen to the entire interview (because I can’t access it at work). However, based on what I read, if you’d been talking to me, I wouldn’t have told you “that makes me tired just thinking about (your comments).” Instead, I’d have asked you point-blank: are you really interested in improving your process, or are you more interested in not rocking the boat? You sound pretty wishy-washy to me, contradicting the whole premise of your article. Turned me right off. You say you need to concentrate on “corralling” the “people like you…who want to make things better”? Did you actually go back and read your statement to see how contradictory it sounds? Those people are trying to help you, and you want to…hold them back? Make up your mind: either you want to make things better or you don’t. Your statements above come across not as a leader but as a manager.

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      Thanks for sharing your perspective Rick. A few thoughts:
      – I suggest you read the entire interview. It’ll give you more perspective.
      – I’m not saying to hold them back at all Rick. Your responsibility as a leader is to set direction and parameters and give them the freedom to operate within that swim lane. Do just turn people loose without success criteria or perspective on where you want them to focus is incredibly risky (both for the organization and for the individual) and it’s completely irresponsible. Given this lens, I invite you to reread the article with an open mind and not be “turned right off” – hopefully it’ll make more sense for you when viewed in this light.

      I must confess – this is the first time in my life anyone has insinuated I might be wishy washy. ;)

      • Rick Griggs says:

        I welcome the chance to read the entire interview, because I think this is an important topic. Is there a transcript available, or just the mp3 recording? I’m curious to see if Kevin expands upon his statement “Well, that’s making me tired just thinking about it, Mike.” I sense a deeper message hides within.

        However, please do not insinuate my position is you should just turn people loose without direction, criteria or perspective; nothing could be farther from what I’m saying. Making sure everyone understands what is expected of them is paramount to enabling success.

        Equally paramount is making sure the “donut makers”, those resistant to change because it threatens to “upset their apple cart”, understand that once the decision to make a change has been made, no further time, energy, or resources will be expended making them more comfortable with having to make that change – which is what I presume is summed up by your saying that those are the people “…that you are going to have to manage through the change and make the case for.” Baloney. Once the decision has been made – and I presume you, as the leader, have either made that decision or bought into it – time for “making the case” to change is over.

        Unfortunately, in my experience, far too often leaders have a blind spot in these situations because they don’t (or don’t want to) deal with those resistant to change, so this is “delegated” to (or dumped upon) those “people like you…who want to make things better” and are trying to move your company forward. Regardless of the parameters you set for the go-getters, you are, in effect, holding them back by making them drag the “donut makers” along. This is especially wasteful if the “donut makers” are your direct reports, because they typically wield greater authority than those trying to move your company forward and therefore are in a better position to stall progress. If a leader is reluctant to address these wasters of his or her company’s time and resources, my position is they are no longer a leader; they’re just a manager, and not a very good one at that, trying to appease feelings. Nothing is a greater pox on the morale of your go-getters, those that are supposedly “like you” and interested in the success of your company.

        I’ll see if my perspective is changed after reading the entire interview. Thanks!

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