Friday, 12 August 2016

Learning and Thinking part two - Leadership

I wrote last week with some thoughts about lean thinking with the emphasis on recognising the importance of changing the way we think. Since change needs support across the vertical as well as horizontal structures of our organisations it seems reasonable to ask how best to help managers with change and improvement?

The Process Improvement Unit works with teams from front line to analyse the work designs then create better ways of delivering the service.  I think it was Deming who commented that workers work in the system and managers should work on the system.  Taking front line teams and helping them to redesign their work processes is clearly working on the system so how should we support managers?

The best answer I have ever come across is that given by Deming and is frequently referred to as the system of profound knowledge, or leadership competencies.  With some interpretation by me and a few thoughts from Peter Scholtes, they are:

  • Thinking and leading in terms of systems:
Systems are wholes comprising many parts.  For example, a symphony is a complex whole comprising many parts: music, musicians, instruments, venue, conductor etc.  Each of these parts consists of sub-parts and each of these sub-sub parts. The overall purpose of the system is to perform music.  No one part or subpart can fulfil the purpose thus, they must act in concert, hence the name!  The parts must be subordinate to the purpose of the whole such that no one tries to play the loudest or fastest - the result would be a cacophony.  A common purpose, no cross-purposes and integration of all the parts provides music to the ears and is directly analogous to a well functioning organisation.  
Everything starts with a purpose.  What is your purpose is the most useful question one can be asked.  For an organisation to work properly it must have a clear, constant purpose and to have this it requires leadership.

  • Understanding variability:
Leaders failing to master the concept of variation will cause them to see trends where there are none and miss trends where there are trends.  They risk blaming people for things beyond their control and giving credit for things equally beyond control. Not understanding variation will have simplistic, almost superstitious explanations about cause and effect.  One management disease is trying to solve complex problems with simplistic solutions and the lack of understanding of variation leads to overly simplistic solutions that are wrong. Understanding variation requires data which is carefully gathered, analysed and interpreted so that we can understand our systems, predict future performance, plan, prioritise and solve problems.

  • Understanding Human Behaviour:
We are simplistic about people: we look for heroes to reward or culprits to punish. We believe we know how to motivate people when we cannot. We create elaborate incentive plans that not only don’t work but make things worse.  Human behaviour is wonderful and complicated and we will never completely understand it.  However, there are things to be learned about motivation, work performance, teamwork, loyalty, cooperation and the multitude of dynamics that comprise human behaviour.  Leaders failing to recognise this inherent complexity will fail to create the sense of community in the workplace and the genuine relationships that allow the corresponding work systems to improve and flourish.

  • Understanding Learning and Improvement:
As human lifespans get longer and the lifespans of knowledge and pace of changes get shorter these two opposing trends create a revolution in the substance and methods of learning.  What we need to learn changes rapidly and how we learn also must change rapidly with a critical need for continuous lifelong learning.  Leadership therefore must necessitate a commitment to learn - both as leaders and with the teams we lead.
Deming again said something about theory and application along the lines of “All theories are wrong, but some are useful” In other words, we have a theory, we try it out and we learn - again and again.  This repeated cycle was described by Deming as the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle which is embedded in the approaches that the PIU take with all our work.  Leaders need to commit to learn and embrace the interplay between theory and application so that true fact based learning takes place.

  • Understanding Interactions and Interdependencies:
Performance is what results from the interaction of various events and factors that comprise the system, variability, human behaviour and learning.  Leadership requires an understanding of these interactions and interdependencies in order to understand the complexities of change.
  • Giving the Organization Direction and Focus:
Simplistic leadership seeks to direct and control people.  Good leadership establishes, and continuously reinforces, throughout all staff teams the purpose, aims and priorities of the organisation.  Everything starts with a purpose and maintaining direct line of sight clarity on what this means for each and every person in the organisation is one of the roles of the leader.

So how do you rate yourself in terms of the above? I hope this has given you food for thought. The PIU would love to hear your thoughts on leadership or talk to you about how we can help...

Thanks for reading.

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