Managing Your Expectations

Strategy, simply defined as what an organization needs to do, is important. There is no doubt that an artfully designed strategic concept can have transformative implications for the fortunes of an organization. Most executives and academics will also quickly add that execution is as important as strategy if not more so, How things are done must also undergo transformation if we are to realize the potential of any strategy. Process, the combination of people, tools, material, energy, and information, is at the heart of execution.

But as many Process Excellence practitioners know there is a big gap between the rhetoric of senior leaders regarding their desire for transformative change and the reality of their words and deeds.

The big gap is that while strategy requires insight and other admirable traits, it is also largely sterile. Deals, economies of scale, technological trends — the stuff of many strategies —  do not tend to involve the messy work of altering leadership mindsets or behaviors. PowerPoint decks with colorful graphics can analyze the economics of an industry and illustrate the changing dynamics of customer needs and technological capabilities. They can also show bullet point lists of the required “leadership traits” or “cultural attributes” that underpin the strategy and might even describe some of the “best practice” actions of leading firms to encourage and reinforce those new behaviors.

Transformation of how we do things starts with changing how the leaders of an organization behave and their concept of themselves as leaders. This requires more than a PowerPoint description of the “desired end state.” It involves big and messy questions about each leader’s self-identity — their mental image of what they think an effective leader is in a given context and the extent to which they see themselves as meeting that definition. This focus on the mindset and behavior of the leaders is quite different than the typical impression that process excellence primarily involves changing how workers and staff do things and behave. For example, the kind of frontline problem solving embedded within the Toyota Production System has huge implications for the role of leaders as problem solving coaches who spend more time asking “why” than telling “how.” The inversion of the hierarchical, command-and-control “pyramid” model is a transformative upending of how leaders typically see their role and exposes many of them to the fear of appearing unskilled, a terrifying prospect to leader’s egos.

So what to do?

My suggestion is that the leaders of the process transformation work at an organization, either before getting everyone all revved-up, or during an assessment of how well things are going (or not) need to explicitly assess the gaps between the required leadership model and the way leaders actually behave. If leadership doesn’t want to talk about this, or avoids engaging in planning on how to help leaders themselves undergo the required mind-set shifts, then at least you’ll know that any effort around “transformation” of process is essentially a waste of time. A more likely outcome is engaging certain focused areas of the organization, whose leaders are wanting to make changes to their own personal leadership approach and that of their leadership team, in order to undertake local performance transformation.

I do not make this statement lightly but I have seen so many highly skilled, highly motivated people run into brick walls they didn’t build and quite often blame themselves. There’s nothing dishonorable about recognizing the reality of the limitations in an organization for leadership behaviour change and either seeking to make some change occur within those constraints or to look for other organizations that are actually willing, for whatever reasons, to transform their leadership model as part of achieving transformation in execution performance.