Leading for the Future

David Veech, Executive Director, Institute for Lean Systems (ILS) | January, 2011

We're living in an economy that's erratic and unstable, with manufacturing trends towards more dependence on diminishing natural resources, and in a world where people are rising up to push back against what they view as oppression. How can leaders prepare for a future full of so many unknowns?

In the US, we're under constant pressure to create jobs, but with demand for products at low levels, hiring is high risk. Companies can't afford to hire new people or can't find the right people with the right skills for the jobs they have open. How are leaders supposed to serve their customers without talented staff?

Changes come faster and are more significant than at any time in human history, whether driven by technology, demographics, or just hope. But this isn't a story about gloom and doom. There are very practical steps we can take in organizations right now to prepare for this uncertain, but certainly challenging future, and it starts with leadership and leadership development.

Because we are not going to be able to predict what new challenges are coming, the most important thing we as leaders can do is recognise that we need more people who are able to quickly see and gather available information, think critically about what that new information might mean for the organization, and take the initiative to act on that information in a prudent yet aggressive way. We need people who can analyze a situation, synthesize a solution, and evaluate the impact of that solution.

We need people who can solve problems. To prepare for our uncertain future, leaders need to build these key skills, and that means the leader’s primary responsibility has to be teaching. Effective teachers not only build the required skill set, but also inspire confidence. Remember that no one becomes an expert without significant experience, which takes time. The important thing is to start now with small steps. A teaching leader has already laid a foundation for learning within the organization. That means work processes are driven by documented standardized work, requiring that everyone who does a shared task does the task the same way. A leader teaches by enforcing the rule and insisting the work be performed the same way each time. Beyond standardized work, the organization will also have created a team-based work structure.

Teams of three to six people, each with a supporting team leader, focus on completing all the required work for the organization, from marketing, to product development, to assembly, to customer service.

Teams promote learning, but still require leadership to challenge the teams to reach higher, setting goals just slightly more difficult than current skills allow. With the foundation set (standardized work, teams, and team leaders), learning is a matter of focused thinking in the course of doing work. Additional opportunities for learning occur any time we experience a problem. In typical organizations, when we experience a problem, someone else has to solve it, not us. In a learning organization, the individual who experiences the problem needs to solve it, but not without help. This is where the team leader comes in. The team leader responds and helps the team member clear the problem, then together, they document the problem and think it through to see if the action they took will be an effective long-term countermeasure.

It works the same with improvement ideas. Team members share them, work them out, analyze them, evaluate them, and implement them with the support of a team leader, supervisor, or other appointed coach to see them through the problem solving process. As we go through these steps every time we have a problem or have an idea, we get a little better, and our confidence climbs a little.

Being a teacher in a work environment doesn’t mean you know all the answers and have to go and provide a class for anyone. It does mean that you help in discovery, and that you set high expectations, challenging the team to keep pushing their own limits, trying again if they fail, understanding why it failed, and celebrating when they succeed. This pattern will teach people how to respond to anything that occurs. That’s the future of the company.