Virtual Teams are Now, Everywhere, and Everyone is on One! Lead them Well!
The Covid-19 crisis is changing everything… what we do in our spare time, our relationships, and how we do our work. It seems that almost everyone is working from home and many our struggling with the difficulties associated with virtual work and virtual team meetings.
I would love it if you would share some of your own experiences, challenges and tips for others. Email them two me at LMMiller@lmmiller.com and I will share them with others.
About two years ago I developed and published a course on Udemy presenting the critical skills of leading successful virtual team meetings. Instantly, so it seems, it is one of my best selling courses. This post is a reminder that it is there and you may find it useful now more than ever.
The issue of how best to manage virtual teams has become a significant issue for many organizations. It was one of the topics that Udemy for Business customers indicated was a high priority. You may have received a request to participate in an online survey on your experience with virtual teams a couple months back. I promised to share the results of that survey and I have developed an online course to train managers and facilitators to manage virtual or dispersed teams.
Here is a coupon for the Leading Virtual Teams.
You can see the complete results of the survey here: Virtual Team Survey
Here are some of the highlights from the survey:
The survey asked “What one piece of advice do you have for others leading virtual teams?”
- Make sure the team has a clear charter.
- The agenda is key
- Send agenda, send reminders, send action plans before and after meetings.
- Rotate facilitation
- Ensure engagement and ownership of tasks
- Pause and wait for others to respond
- Spell out the guidelines and enforce them
- Distinguish between “review/update” meetings vs. “problem solving.”
- Be as inclusive as possible.
- Make sure you can SEE each other.
- Keep and publish attendance record.
Somewhat to my surprise, those responding indicated that the technology was more problematic than the behavior of members.
I also asked about the software they were using and how satisfied they were with that software. The software that received the highest satisfaction was Zoom.
By far the biggest problem reported by those leading virtual meetings is simply keeping participants focused and engaged, rather than multi-tasking and distracted. In my course I recommend a number of strategies to maintain engagement of those participating in virtual team meetings.
“Also make it clear that multitasking on calls isn’t OK. According to a recent study,82% of people admit to doing other things—from surfing the web to using the bathroom—during team calls. But virtual collaboration requires that everyone be mentally present and engaged. Explain your policy, and when the group has a virtual meeting, regularly call on people to share their thoughts. Better yet, switch to video, which can essentially eliminate multitasking.” HBR Dec 2014
Many of the issues faced by leaders of virtual teams are the same as those facilitating in-person meetings. I have tried to address the key facilitaton skills that apply to both virtual and non-virtual meetings in my online course.
“Of 1,700 knowledge workers surveyed, 79% reported working always or frequently in dispersed teams. Armed with laptops, Wi-Fi, and mobile phones, most professionals can do their jobs from anywhere.” Harvard Business Review, Dec 2014
Here are some additional references that you may find helpful.
- Getting Virtual Teams Right – Harvard Business Review
- Making Virtual Teams Work: Ten Basic Principles
- Four Habits of Highly Effective Virtual Teams
- Make Remote Work Work
As I reflect on my own life and on human history with each crisis, each time I felt doom, or the world faced an apparent apocalypse there was an opportunity to be seized. Leadership is recognizing a challenge and responding creatively to that challenge.
With daily reports of the spread of the Covid-19 virus, cancelation of conferences, closing of schools and corporate travel restrictions it is time to think creatively about how to respond to the crisis. Within every crisis is the challenge of creativity, to try out new ways of thinking and getting the job done.
Most corporations are now cancelling gatherings of managers and employees for training and development. But that should not halt learning and development. Rather, it should force new ways of thinking about how we learn and develop our employees. We may discover more efficient and more effective ways of getting the job done.
I am not without bias. With sixteen online courses that can all be viewed from home or the workplace 24/7, I can’t help but think that this is a time when corporations should employ online courses to the maximum benefit.
But how can a company make the most of remote online learning during this crisis? Here are some suggestions:
First, don’t promote a scattered approach in which you say, “Here’s a catalog of courses, go take what you want.” That sounds too much like “we don’t have any plan, so make up your own.” Far better to have a change strategy and assign courses that contribute to that strategy. If you are pursuing lean culture than assign a course on that topic.
Employ a “blended learning” model that does not simply rely on watching videos or reading books, but combines knowledge acquisition, action-learning, group reflection and accountability. Let’s break that down.
1. Make it an Assignment: Let me assume you are pursuing lean management, eliminating waste and engaging all employees. My course TEAM KATA: Lean Leadership Skills for High Performing Teams is designed with that intention. Assign all the managers in a business unit to take that course over the next two months. Do not make it optional, a suggestion, or a nice thing to do. Explain that we are going to take this time to focus on developing the capacity of all of our teams to improve processes and eliminate waste. Let’s all do it together. There is power in group action. Be sure that the leadership teams in the organization are taking the same course and modeling the same behavior.
2. Structured Reflection and Action: Create a structure of study circles. If you have fifty managers in an organization create eight to ten groups who can go through the course together, and section by section, once a week meet to reflect on how they are applying their knowledge to their team. Sharing is critical to internalizing new habits. A good course presents assignments that are designed to turn knowledge into action in the workplace. By participating in a small group that shares the challenge of implementing the lessons, there is an inherent accountability. Learning often occurs from one’s peers who are discovering how best to develop a team scorecard, create standard work, emply process maps or problem solving.
3. Assign Team Coaches: You do not have to be a credentialed, certified coach to help others. Within every organization there is someone who can be selected to provide feedback, encouragement, and share knowledge and experience across teams. If you know that a coach is going to visit your team and observe your team meeting, and who then gives the leader feedback on how she facilitated the team, it is a strong encouragement to both learn and act.
4. Recognize and Celebrate Effort: At the outset of this structured learning process, make it clear that there are consequences for going through the course and for applying the knowledge to the workplace. What is the “so-what?” of the effort to go through the course and make the effort, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. One answer is to create a “belt” recognition within your company. You can award yellow, blue, whatever color belts for completing the course and for achieving results through action. Do not award recognition for simply watching videos. Award some symbol of recognition for action – behavior and performance.
Whether or not you are using my courses or someone else’s, these four components are essential to maximizing the value of remote learning. Of course, it is still beneficial to gather managers together for experiential learning, shared experience and listen to brilliant speakers. But the current crisis calls on all learning and development managers to experiment with improved methods of remote learning.
Remote or online learning is most effective when combined with coaching, action assignments and recognition. This is “blended learning.”
The following is an example of course section from my Team Kata course, the Team Tasks, and the related Coaching Questions to develop the “kata” of high performing teams. Please click on the images to enlarge.
You may have seen the following chart which defines the sections of my Team Kata course on one axis and the completion of action-learning assignments on the other. By completing both you move from lower left to upper right. At some point near the top you can say that a team, and its leader, have achieved the status of a high performing team and the award of Green Belt for that achievement. For an organization, what percent of the managers and teams have achieved this status? That again is another way of creating accountability and recognition.
Periodically I review my online courses to search for ways they can be improved. I recently made some improvements to the first course I created, Team Leadership, and as I was working on it I was reminded that this course is really about a system of knowledge, of systemic learning, that is lacking in most companies.
Having worked for more than forty years with companies like Honda, Shell Oil, Merck, Corning and others, trying to build a culture of teamwork, empowerment, and lean processes, I have observed a few key reasons for successful or failed change.
As you consider your plans for the New Year, consider designing your lean efforts with the following components of a system of learning:
- Lead! Adopt a Philosophy of Shared Practice, Language and Skills:
It was a long time ago, back in the 1970’s while working in textile mills in the South that my associates and I realized you could not simply train first level supervisors and expect them to change their method of dealing with employees. We tried to teach them to focus on data, to engage employees as a team in keeping score and problem solving, and to employ positive reinforcement rather than punishment. We soon realized that they would try to make this change, but their own managers above, had been promoted because they had used the very negative management style we were trying to change. They soon reverted to the behavior of their leaders.
It wasn’t until we went to the CEO or business unit head and said that “you must BE the change, you must lead!” that we began to achieve permanent and lasting change. For many years, when selling our services to major corporations, I challenged the CEO to be the change, to go through the same training and do the same action steps that we were going to ask of every other manager. I challenged them to lead! They always agreed. I did sometimes need to remind them of their commitment.
More than once I have observed that the effectiveness of teams, the ability to use problem solving methods and tools, is better at lower levels and worse above. I have coached senior management teams going through the Team Leadership course to do the exact same things as first level teams – define their scorecard, graph their performance, use the PDCA or A3 methodology, define leader standard work, and map their processes. By doing these things they both gain understanding of their value, and they model the behavior for those below. Do it at every level…together! Unity of practice is powerful.
2. Manage the Change – Institute Accountability and Motivation for Lean Practices:
I do not know why it is, but when it comes to changing the culture, managers seem to abandon every good management practice. They imagine that the culture is too complex to apply objectives, measurement and accountability. They are wrong.
I think one of the most useful things I have ever developed is this simple spreadsheet and graphic (at the top) that defines both training modules and the “deliverables”, the action-learning steps that are associated with each module. It is downloadable within the Team Leadership course. One axis defines the learning modules, the knowledge. The other axis defines the “deliverables” action steps. Knowledge, plus action, plus feedback equals sustained change.
As you progress through the course you fill in the arrows that correspond to each module completed and each corresponding practice that you have implemented. This gives a quick visual representation of the progress you are making. I have visited clients and walked through the offices and production area and seen this printed out and posted on bulletin boards for each team, including the senior management team! You can quickly see the progress, or the absence of progress. It is accountability, feedback and reinforcement.
When your team reaches the upper right on the chart you have achieved the status of a High Performing Team.
Why is it that every athlete, from the child in Little League to Tom Brady or Roger Federer, has a coach, but we in management feel that we are somehow above the need for a coach.
- Provide Coaching for Every Team and Leader:
We know how new habits develop. It is not a mystery. Knowledge, motivation, practice, and feedback. It is the design of the Team Leadership course to provide the knowledge of team leadership and the functioning of high performing teams. But there must also be the motivation (accountability and reinforcement), as well as direct coaching and feedback.
Over the many dozens of clients who I have helped to develop a system of teams from top to bottom, we have trained and developed internal coaches, drawn from the ranks of line managers and employees, to provide coaching to all teams and all team leaders. This has been successful at creating a lasting change in the habits of both leaders and teams.
In my latest changes to my Team Leadership course I have included both my Team Kata book and my Lean Coach book to assist with the development of the internal coaching process. The following maps illustrate the sections of the Team Leadership course, the action learning assignments, and the coaching questions that a coach might ask the team leader or the entire team. If this discipline is followed, it is certain to significantly improve the functioning of every team and their ability to improve performance.
- Constancy of Purpose:
As you may know, this was one of Dr. Demings’ favorite phrases and one of his 14 points. Leading a change in culture is hard. Unfortunately, we have created a corporate culture in too many organizations that rewards and demands short term success. We move managers from one business unit to another, with just enough time to make proclamations and promote slogans, but not enough time to institute lasting change in the culture. We need a system that rewards managers for business improvement over time – five to ten years – so they can experience the results of their improvements.
Cultures do change and will change, the only question is whether we give that change direction, thoughtful and systematic leadership.
My bet is that you do not identify yourself as a “sales person.” You are probably a change agent, a manager, or leader.
My second bet is that you must be able to sell your ideas, yourself, and your products or services to others to succeed. Selling is an essential component of getting to the top in any field. But, selling makes us anxious. The solution is to sell in the spirit of service to others – sincerely. This is at the heart of Consultative Selling Skills.
Who becomes a partner in a major law firm? Simply a good lawyer? No. It is the lawyer who can bring in the business by developing strong relationships with clients and generate revenue. The same is true in consulting, accounting or any other professional service firm. It is essential for entrereneurs who must sell their ideas. It is also true for those who sell high value software and products like commercial equipment.
Transactional selling is focused on the object and the immediate transaction. Consultative Selling is strategic and focused on shared problem solving that matches the client’s needs and creates the link to your service or product.
After thirty-five years of selling many millions of dollars in consulting services I decided to share these skills in this new online course.
The topics covered include the following:
1. How Do High Performing Sales People Behave? – A Study of the Stars. This is actual field research conducted by the instructor for a client on the dozen most successful sales people out of many hundreds selling for a major commercial truck manufacturer.
2. The Process of Consultative Selling: The Antecedents that Lead to the Sale. The instructor describes the process of creating a “sales funnel” that starts with building your personal brand, market knowledge, and creating market awareness.
3. The Consultative Conversation. This section describes the factors in “likeability”, the process of dialogue (thinking together), problem solving models that enable you to immediately start adding value by helping the client diagnose their problems and co-create solutions that incorporate the features and benefits of your service or product. The instructor shares a detailed actual proposal of his consulting services that sold for more than a million dollars. He also shares a case study and suggest possible proof statements that enable the closing of the sale.
4. Service the Sale: Many sales courses end with the famous “close”. However, this instructor insists that the initial close of a contract is only the beginning of a relationship and describes the process of post-sale service and quality control that leads to additional sales opportunities.
5. The Essential Communication Skills: The final section of the course is training in the fundamental communication skills of asking open-ended questions, reflective listening, and expressing empathy that are essential to all quality relationships and are essential for Consultative Selling.
There is nothing theoretical about this course. It is based entirely on the instructor’s many years as the principle rainmaker of a successful consulting firm.
The course is six hours long, with lifetime access, available 24/7 on any connected device. Now for only $9.99. There is a thirty-day money-back satisfaction guarantee.
(A guest post by Natasha Miller Naderi, and yes, she is my daughter, I am proud say and building her consulting business in Beijing.)
Once a child asked a wise man, “why do all the rivers flow into the powerful ocean?” The wise man replied, “because it sets itself lower than them all and so draws them to itself.” 
Emerging organizations are transforming our understanding of “power.” The powerful organizations of the future will be those that successfully engage the heart and mind of every member. Other forms of traditional power will follow, and not precede, this first cause. At the heart of this these organizations, lies a fundamental transformation in the social contract between the individual and the organization. It involves moving from ‘Adult to Child’ to ‘Adult to Adult’ relationships. This is the first principle from my last article, On the Verge of Transformation: Unlocking Powerful Principles of Emerging Organizations.
When we see one another as adults – who are noble, worthy, and potentially powerful beings – EVERYTHING changes. We shift how we organize, how we relate to one another, the language we use, how we share information, how we learn and grow, how we assure quality of our products and services, how we hold one another accountable, and so much more. False dichotomies of us vs. them are broken down. We are them, they are us.
Organizations that operate with an assumption of Adult-to-Adult Relationships give high degrees of power to all, and at the same time, create tremendous transparency and accountability that demand high responsibility.
You may be thinking – that sounds pretty easy and obvious! In our daily lives we typically treat human beings as equal adults. We very naturally ask for the viewpoints of others, when making a decision that will impact them. And we only offer suggestions to a friend, recognizing that it would be completely inappropriate to force our will on another.
Yet, at work, we often act very differently. We might take pride in how many people are ‘below us’ and feel easily threatened when our directions are questioned by someone ‘beneath us’. And on the flipside, we might keep quiet when someone ‘above us’, has a different perspective, even though we are very confident in our view.
When we lack the skills for effectively communicating and collaborating, we fall back on resorting to force, over and over again. When this happens, there is an enormous cost on the human side of the organization. We foster an Adult-to-Child social contract, lowering the sense of self-worth and self-perceptions of those ‘below us’. We lower net energy and create negative responses such as fear, blame, and regret. We take power away from other people and stunt one another’s growth.
Why create an organization of powerless people? Why increase negative energy? Why develop child mindsets? Is there a better way?
Examples from Emerging Organizations
Let’s look at a few examples of what Adult-to-Adult Relationships look like in some powerful organizations.
Morning Star is the world’s largest tomato processing company and has been operating with self-management for two decades.
In Morning Star, there are no employees. All are “colleagues”. Two principles govern human interactions: First, people should not use force against others or their property. Second, people should keep their commitments to others.
No person has unilateral authority over any other person, including the authority to fire others. And no one person has command authority. The rationale is that, if an employee can’t be persuaded of the value of the decision, you might not have thought through the decision well enough. Furthermore, no one will be engaged in executing it, and may in fact subtly undermine it.
Morning Star emphasizes “total responsibility”. At Morning Star all colleagues have the obligation to do something about an issue they sense, even when it falls outside of the scope of their roles. It is unacceptable to say, “somebody should do something about this problem” and leave it at that.
There is an ‘accountability process’ requiring all colleagues to have direct conversations with one another on performance issues. “Anyone not willing to initiate such a discussion would just have to tolerate the situation. Either put up or shut up.”
Another fantastic example of an organization that develops Adult-to-Adult Relationships, is Lumiar. Lumiar is an educational institution, founded in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and now comprised of nine different K-12 schools throughout Europe and South America.
At Lumiar, all community members, including the children, are treated with the greatest respect and challenged at the highest levels to develop their maturity, responsibility, ability to make important choices, and much more. At Lumiar, there are no teachers, only ‘tutors’ who identify the interests of the children, create problem-based learning projects, and guide the students in completing them.
At these schools, all community members contribute to participative management, through weekly ‘Circles’. Anyone in the community can add to the agenda. For example, one time a kitchen staff wanted to talk about why the children aren’t cleaning up after themselves; another time the children wanted to talk about why they can’t bring gum to school. Through these conversations, students develop critical skill needed in the 21st century of inquiry, communication, understanding of diversity, tolerance of frustration, and much more.
In Which Stage is Your Organization Operating?
The picture below shows the evolution of organizations into a stage of adult-adult relationships. Which one matches your organization most closely?
Actionable Ways to Expand Our Power
How can we expand the power within ourselves, while honoring and expanding the power within others? How can organizations create positive spirals that result in a net increase in our collective power?
In addition to building structures, systems, and skills that support distributed power, below are a few simple steps we can take.
1. Speak to the ‘Why’. When we share why we’ve made a decision, we are recognizing the rights of others to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions. Additionally, we develop good judgement when we think through and communicate the reasons behind our actions and decisions.
2. Ask for Solutions. When we talk about problems, we tend to get more problems and fall into victim and powerless mindset. When someone comes to you with a problem, you can help them find their internal power through asking, “what would you like to see instead?” and “what do you think might be the first step to make that happen?” We often do not recognize our own power and strength to discover and action solutions.
3. Become Dedicated to Investigation of the Truth. When we are genuinely seeking the truth, we become detached from our ego and our personal will, and do not feel a need to use force. The goal is not to win. The goal is to investigate reality and discover the best solution. When we are humble and dedicated to a power and truth that is outside of ourselves, we expand our collective power, without concern for its source.
What you might notice through all of these examples, is that we expand our personal power when we develop a deep sense of our personal humility at the same time.
What other best practices have you seen, to expand our collective power?
Beyond Empowerment: The Age of the Self-Managed Organization, by Doug Kirkpatrick.
From Vignettes from the Life of Abdu’l-Baha
I first want to wish all who have taken any of my courses, read my books or blogs, a truly happy and peaceful Christmas (Chanukah, or any Holiday) and best wishes for the coming year. I am truly grateful that I have had the opportunity to be of some small service to you.
As you know I teach and write about leadership, management and organization culture. So, of course, I view events in the news with an eye to the qualities of leadership being displayed and those required in present circumstances. I would just like to share a couple thoughts for your consideration as we look forward to the New Year.
The earth is a small planet. We are one people on this small planet. In a very real sense, we are all now world citizens. When we imagine differences and threats, when we lead in a way that amplifies those differences, we are leading toward greater friction and costs. When you manage a company, the more friction there is between engineering, manufacturing and sales, for example, the greater the likelihood of failure. All friction consumes energy and produces heat. When we create unified processes, eliminate frictions between activities and people, we reduce the cost of that friction. This is a principle that applies within a company, across companies, and across countries.
The job of leaders today, at every level, is to recognize the unity of interests, the unity of people and processes, and reduce barriers that are both real and in the imagination. Leaders create common purpose, they do not simply respond to, or exploit, popular sentiments. Leaders instill greater nobility in their followers, and do not manipulate their baser instincts. The entire world is in desperate need of leaders who are uniters, and not dividers.
I hope in the coming year we will all recognize our shared interests. The history of civilizations repeatedly demonstrates that when classes of people are increasingly separated by extremes of wealth and poverty, from top to bottom, the system becomes unstable and revolution results. The greater the disparity in class, the more violent the revolution.
There is no religious tradition, not in Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Buddhism, that celebrates the massive accumulation of personal wealth. They all promote charity and moderation, uplifting the poor, and forgiving those who have erred. We who either control or influence the systems of society, including within our organizations, I believe have the duty to design those systems to reduce disparity, to moderate wealth, to uplift the poor. This is the lesson of every religion in which we may profess belief. And, now is the time for leaders to put these spiritual principles into practice.
These are my prayers for the coming year. I pray for your happiness and your success.
These may be the most feared words in any corporation. Unfortunately, it has become a too often used phrase in American politics, intended to impart the image of a strong and decisive leader. But, if you are a competent manager you know that these words are the opposite – they are an admission of failure to be used rarely and humility. I write the following with the concern that some aspiring managers may fail to understand the significance of these words.
Great leaders attract the best people, have trust in them and receive trust in return. They build a team of collaborators who support one another and have very low turnover as a result. The words “you’re fired” may never be heard!
A Few Truths About Firing
First, two laws of human relationships:
If you want to be a good leader, you must first be a good human being! Your behavior reflects your values. Good human beings have good values, and if you have good values you treat others with dignity and respect. You will not gain respect if you are incapable of having respect for those whom you seek to lead.
Second, loyalty, like love, is gained when it is given. If you dismiss others easily, you will also be easily dismissed by others. If you demonstrate loyalty to others, you will likely gain loyalty in return. Loyalty is never “owed”, it is always earned.
Those of us who have been in positions of responsibility for any period of time have had to confront the unfortunate act of firing an employee. It is the single most unpleasant thing you will have to do as a manager. Why is it unpleasant? Because you know that you are inflicting pain on another human being, and if that is not painful to you, then you lack empathy, which is an essential quality of any leader.
Here are some rules of firing to consider:
- Hiring is more important than firing. If you hire well, you will fire rarely. Every firing is an admission that you did not do a good job of hiring the best people. The cost of replacing an employee is generally considered 150% of their annual compensation. When you must dismiss someone, you have incurred a significant cost to your organization.
- It is your job as a manager to develop, direct and lead your employees to the right behavior and performance and likely avoid firing. If you must fire someone then you must admit that you have either failed at hiring or failed at developing and directing that individual.
- Dismissing someone from your employment should never be a surprise to that person. Letting someone go is the last act in a process that, if done well, will correct most poor performance. This is an issue of justice! Yes, I said “justice.” It is unjust to be picked up by a policeman and thrown into prison without any knowledge of the crime. Likewise, it is unjust to fire someone who has not been given every reasonable chance to correct his or her poor performance. I go into this in some length in my course on Giving and Receiving Feedback. In short, here are some keys:
- Effective correcting and development solves most problems. You must be absolutely frank and honest with the individual, sharing the exact behavior you see as problematic and instructing them in the desired behavior.
- You must then give him or her feedback in very short order as to whether they are succeeding or failing to conform to the desired behavior. Give them the facts, the data on their performance. Give them feedback again.
- Reinforce effort and progress, not merely the final desired behavior. Human beings learn through behvior shaping, successive reinforcement of approximations toward the desired performance.
- You must go through this feedback/learning cycle several times in order to establish that the individual is either incapable or unwilling to perform. Only after repeating this cycle several times should you then warn the individual that if their behavior does not change, then you will have no choice but to terminate their employment.
- These steps of correcting, feedback, and warning must be documented in writing to both the individual and to your human resource manager. In most countries there are significant legal issues that may arise from firing.
Assuming there is still failure, consider how you go about firing someone because that act has an impact on many others in the organization.
And When You Do…
- NEVER fire someone in public or humiliate them in public in any way. If you do, you will not be trusted by others and you will lose their loyalty.
- NEVER fire someone by twitter, email or other electronic means. Let me put this in the bluntest terms I can think of: If you aren’t man enough (or woman) to sit down and confront the individual face-to-face, you do not deserve to be in any leadership position.
- When you sit down with the individual you will remind them of the previous feedback and the final warning. You will then give them the facts on their performance and why it is not acceptable.
- Now have empathy for the individual. Help him or her consider that they are still a good person, but they simply do not fit this job. Surely, there is some other job where they will be more successful and where they will be happier. Ask if they have considered a different position. You are in the power/parent position, so help them to find a path toward their own success. In the rare times I did have to fire someone, I have had them come back to me and thank me for how I let them go and how I guided them. Believe it or not, firing can be a positive experience for the individual.
I was CEO of a consulting firm for twenty years. When we hired employees I told them that no one had ever been fired for making a mistake. I made mistakes, we all made mistakes. You could only be fired for two reasons: First, outright dishonesty – dishonesty within the company or dishonesty to our clients. Second, you could be fired for your failure to learn. I did have a case in which we had given someone very explicit feedback three times in regard to the same behavior, behavior that caused our client to ask for that consultant to be removed from the assignment. Each time he blamed the client rather than accepting responsibility. He could not, or would not, learn.
If your company makes the above guidance the norm, you will have dedicated employees who are engaged in continuous self-improvement, and you will be respected as a trustworthy leader.
I am going to write a series of posts on leadership issues I consider extremely important. I would like to have your undivided attention for just a few moments. There is a dominant theme that runs through all of my online courses and writing and it is the primary task of a leader, the “one thing”, the task that is most important at this period of our history.
I am very concerned with the state of our leadership and those of us who have made a career of studying and writing about leadership have a duty to speak up.
You might remember the movie City Slickers and that wonderful character played by the great actor Jack Palance. He tells his city slickers that the secret of life is just one thing… what that is, is for them to figure out. Well, I am here to tell you the one thing, the one most important thing for you to be focused on if you want to be a successful leader, whether in business, or in any other field.
Leadership is the process of creating unity of energy and effort by instilling a devotion to a worthy purpose, a purpose that uplifts and ennobles those who will follow and sacrifice. In the end, there is no sacrifice, only the gift of worthiness.
The Unity Principle
The concept of unity is critical to understanding leadership in this age. This is true in a country, a company, or a family. Every great leader has distinguished himself (or herself), not by dividing and tearing down one group to benefit another. Rather, by creating unity out of diversity.
There is a wonderful letter from a common soldier at Valley Forge in 1777 when George Washington’s troops were cold and hungry. He wrote that he had trouble understanding what he had in common with so many of the other soldiers, some of whom only spoke German, and some Dutch, and others who spoke a dialect of English he could barely understand. They were from Pennsylvania, or Maryland, or Georgia, while he was from Connecticut. There was no “United States”, there were only diverse states, comprised of immigrants from diverse countries with diverse food, language and religions. And, it was not at all clear that they belonged together as they starved and one third went through the freezing winter without shoes. The genius of George Washington was to unite them, despite apparent differences and self-interest, into a unified force dedicated to a common and noble cause. That is what true leaders do!
Alexander the Great was a Macedonian who united the Greek cities as one state and led them on a march that conquered what was at that time, all the known world. When Alexander conquered Persia, he wore Persian dress and made the leading Persian generals, once commanders of a great and proud Persian Empire, generals in his own army. He conducted a marriage of one thousand Greek soldiers to one thousand Persian women to symbolize the unity of his Empire. His genius was not only as a battlefield commander, and he was that, but to create unity among diverse and ancient enemies. Unfortunately, on his death there was no system or structure to maintain that unity, only the personality of Alexander. It quickly disintegrated.
Abraham Lincoln’s first and primary mission on election to the presidency was to maintain the unity of his Nation that was rapidly disintegrating. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wonderful book, A Team of Rivals, chronicles his cabinet comprised, not of those who most agreed with him. Rather his cabinet was formed of rivals who would disagree and inform his own views. It was the creation of unity of those around him, those who would disagree, that informed his decision making.
A strong leader is not one who enforces conformity and loyalty to his personality. A strong leader instills loyalty to principles, not personality. A strong leader is strong enough within, to allow the clash of differing opinions around her.
The history of the human race is the history of ever expanding circles of complexity, diversity, and collaboration. It is the expansion of commerce and influence based on trust. Building walls to keep out those who are different or those who are in need is not only contrary to the American tradition, it contradicts the inevitable march of human history. No matter what any individual or politician thinks or fears, we are moving toward an age in which national borders have little meaning as our economies merge into one global economy. This leader recognizes that the game of commerce is nonzero-sum, not a zero-sum game. Global collaboration has not weakened any country. It has led to an increase in aggregate wealth and reduction of conflicts.
During our last elections both candidates campaigned against the Trans Pacific Partnership trying to appeal to those who fear globalization. That partnership would have opened markets to U.S. farmers and manufacturers that until now have been closed. Having withdrawn from that, Japan has led the renegotiation among the remaining eleven countries and this partnership will be signed in March, leaving the United States to be excluded. Today Japan signed a trade agreement with the European Union. The United States is being left out in the cold, by our own ill conceived choice. Our withdrawal has been a gift to competitors as we have disadvantaged ourselves. At the same time our farmers have seen a collapse of soy bean and other commodity futures as we have created a tariff war that will inevitably damage our own economy by increasing costs and reducing opportunities for expansion.
The imperative of unity is not only in international affairs. It equally true within companies. Some years ago, I was conducting a workshop at Intel with the senior management team. I watched as Any Grove, the legendary founder and CEO made a statement, to be followed by a young manager who raised his hand and said “Andy, you keep saying that, and it keeps being wrong”, an astonishing statement by an audacious young manager to a legendary and powerful CEO. I watched as Andy turned around in his seat and said “OK, what do the rest of you think”, and for twenty minutes I lost control of my workshop.
I stood there in awe of the frankness and honesty of the conversation, true dialogue, and I realized that this young and audacious manager must have known that he was not ruining his career by challenging Andy Grove in an open forum. Why? Andy Grove was a scientist, a physicist, and the company had been built on science, intellectual inquiry, and this is what Andy Grove valued most. He didn’t value subservience or obedience, the certain signs of a weak and fearful leader. He valued the pursuit of truth that comes from intellectual challenge! This is leadership in the knowledge age.
The ability to lead frank and honest dialogue leads to unity of understanding, unity of thought, unity of energy and effort. This is the task of the leader and it is what is needed most in our companies, our country, and our world. We need to find and elect leaders who are devoted to principles, not promoting their personality. We need leaders strong enough to listen and learn, to engage in the nonzero game of world commerce and culture.
Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, is undeniably one of the great entreprenuers of our age and is rightfully in the same league as Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and others. He is a pioneer in solar energy, launching rockets into space and returning them in a remarkable display of engineering, and is set on upending the automotive business with this all electric Teslas. Recently, however, he has been struggling to meet production goals for his mass market Model 3. This may turn out to be a significant lesson in corporate culture and leadership.
Elon Musk has a vision of a highly automated factory, dominated by robots and artificial intelligence, reducing to near zero the human factor. He believes that his vision of the factory will be his competitive advantage. Musk took over the manufacturing plant that had been NUMMI, the joint venture between GM and Toyota and was the great experiment in taking an older unionized workforce and transforming them into the most productive auto assembly plant in the United States. It proved the application of lean manufacturing in the United States and that it was not dependent on a Japanese workforce or a workforce that was indoctrinated in a greenfield operation. But, Musk has essentially tossed aside the lessons of NUMMI in his belief that he has a superior idea. He recently said…
“The competitive strength of Tesla long-term is not going to be the car: It’s going to be the factory. We are going to productize the factory…
I am, of course, biased. Virtually all of my consulting and training, particularly my new Lean Leadership and Lean Culture course, are all about the human side of lean management which is entirely derived from the lessons of Toyota. My “House of Lean” is designed to reflect the belief that successful organizations are about equal parts technical systems and social systems. The core lean principles of Respect for People and Continuous Improvement are all about people, the social system. If Elon Musk is right about his future factory, the significance of the people side will be minimalized. I doubt it, and so far, the stumbling of his manufacturing facility is not supporting his hypothesis.
John Shook of Lean Enterprise Institute recently said the following:
“The tools required to run a great factory aren’t merely math and engineering, but psychology and sociology. Social psychology and neuroscience. Organizational development and system dynamics – with “system” referring to not only the technical side, which Elon and team will figure out, but also the much more complex social side. The social side is difficult in its own right – add the technical complexity of orchestrating the operational execution and timing involved in gathering and assembly thousands of parts that arrive at exactly the right place at the right time in perfect (down to the minute) precision for thousands of humans to choreograph themselves to the precise (down to the second) rhythm and you’ve got a social-technical challenge of epic proportions.”
Jeffrey Liker, author of the Toyota Way and other essential books on lean recently wrote…
“In my view Elon Musk has adopted an untenable mechanistic philosophy that will need to change if Tesla is to be successful as a mass producer of vehicles, no matter how well designed. He will need to discover basic values that underlie operational excellence like developing people, building culture, continuous improvement, visual management, and work teams owning their processes. In short, he will need to learn about, perhaps the hard way, lean management. Sitting back and counting your money while marveling at digital systems humming along sounds like a dream vision, but it is not reality. Mass production is hard work.”
It should be remembered that Roger Smith at General Motors invested billions of dollars in the dream of a highly automated plant and it resulted in failure. Until Musk or someone else demonstrates the viability of super automated plants, the people skills, the knowledge of lean management, team leadership, problem-solving, and continuous improvement, will remain the proven basis for success.
Lean Leadership – A Response to Challenge
Leadership is the courageous and creative response to challenge. Lean leadership is no different. No significant change happens in the absence of challenge. There is no Martin Luther King in the absence of racism; no Churchill absent fascism; and, no Lincoln absent slavery. One could argue that all progress is in the dance to the rhythm of challenge-and-response.
In business the challenge is different. It is the challenge of innovation – new technologies, new markets, and new economic conditions. There is no Henry Ford absent the challenge presented by the internal combustion engine; no Bill Gates absent the microprocessor; and no Mark Zuckerberg absent the internet. Lean leadership is the response to the challenge of innovative methods and the potential of human creativity. The task of the lean leader is to define the strategic challenge for his or her organization and present that challenge in a way that creates a response that results in significant change and continuous improvement.
It would be wonderful to believe that simply sharing knowledge of a better way would result in the adoption of that better way. If only we were rational beings. But after assisting dozens of companies with their efforts to institute a lean culture, it is very obvious that the success of those efforts is directly linked to the quality and constancy of lean leadership. Lean Leadership and Lean Culture require very specific actions on the part of leaders and I do not think those actions of been well articulated in previous books and articles. I have attempted to define these actions in my new course on Lean Leadership and Lean Culture and I want to summarize them here.
To Challenge and to Serve
Leaders define the mountain to be climbed, the worthy purpose that will motivate followers to sacrifice. They then recognize the task to serve the needs of their followers by enabling them, providing the tools, the guidance, the skills, the path toward success, and finally, celebrating that success. Challenging employees and then serving them may seem to be almost contradictory functions, but they are both necessary sides to the same coin.
The Challenge is Strategy
The challenge is strategy… it is where we are going and why we are going there, and it is only the leaders of the organization who can set that strategy and establish the challenge. It is the primary function of leadership in every organization, whether an army or an entrepreneurial start-up company. Too many leaders set their sights too low. They are too practical. They establish a target, a challenge, of improving operating efficiency by ten percent. Or, reducing cycle time by twenty percent. Do those goals inspire you? Do you seriously think they inspire employees to sacrifice for “the cause?” I doubt it. Because we are too often punished for the failure to achieve goals we reduce our vision to that which is easily understood and achieved. Toyota’s global vision states:
“Toyota will lead the way to the future of mobility, enriching lives around the world with the safest and most responsible ways of moving people.
Through our commitment to quality, constant innovation and respect for the planet, we aim to exceed expectations and be rewarded with a smile.”
That’s big! Toyota isn’t in the car business, they are in the mobility business, and their job is to enrich lives around the world! From that challenge may flow ten thousand more specific challenges, targets or goals, that lead to the fulfillment of the big vision. But, you must start with a motivating challenge that gives people dignity and purpose. That is the root cause of motivation and change.
Lean Leaders are “Servant Leaders”
I have identified six specific functions of lean leaders, each of which are essential to implementing lean principles in an organization. Here is a quick overview of those six functions. (These are explained in some detail in my course.)
1. Develop External/Business Strategy
Business strategy is a response to external threats and opportunities, both employing and then developing internal capabilities. Lean leadership and culture is not divorced from business strategy, but is rather a means of developing the internal capabilities that will enable the organization to execute business strategy.
2. Develop Internal Culture Strategy
External strategy defines where we are going. Internal strategy defines what we need to get there. Strategy is only achieved if there is alignment of internal culture and capabilities to the strategy. Peter Drucker is reported to have said that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The point is that you can’t achieve a business strategy if you don’t have the necessary culture and capabilities. The absence of this alignment creates friction, and friction is waste… not lean!
3. Lead System Design
Too many lean consultants think you can simply go into an organization and start doing PDCA problem solving at the first level and create a lean culture. This is too easy! Too often the barriers that create interruptions and waste in the process are determined at a higher level. They are both social and technical. They are the relationships with suppliers, the layout of the plant, the existence of warehouses and staffs. They are layers of management that suck decision up and rob employees of dignity and the ability to solve problems. In short, they are system problems that require design thinking! The lean leader recognizes the need for systems and structure to align with strategy and creates a process of redesign.
4. Be the Model
Leadership is modeling the behavior desired of others. If you have sat in a meeting of senior managers at Honda or Toyota, as I have, you would witness the practice of effective team management, problem-solving and consensus reaching. You would also witness leaders asking if they have “been on the spot” (the Gemba) to directly observe the work and listen to the “world’s greatest experts.” In other words, they are practicing Respect for People and Continuous Improvement, the two core principles of lean culture. Your ability to institute culture change is directly related to your ability to be a model of that culture.
5. Coach & Develop Others
A leader is a coach. A leader knows that his or her job is to develop the capacity of others. The greater the capacity of others the easier is the job of the leader. At Toyota every manager has a coach, an internal coach, a peer. I developed my course on Coaching Leaders for Continuous Improvement to aid in the development of this internal capacity. Continuous improvement is not only about the production line. It is about personal development, the desire to personally improve our own skills. This is the job of a coach and we need to develop a culture of coaching others, which is a form of service to others.
6. Motivation and Accountability
In our desire to develop a positive culture it may be easy to put aside the reality that it is the manager’s job to hold others accountable. Even in an environment of self-directed teams, the manager is responsible for assuring that those teams are accountable for performance. Toyota practices “Four-to-One” which is the practice of four positive comments to one negative. Research in the 1960’s by Dr. Ogden Lindsley demonstrated that the optimum learning environment sees more positive than negative interactions. The actual ratio he found was 3.57 to one. While the exact number is not important, it is important that we recognize that motivation to continuously improve must be reinforced positively.
Each of these six components of lean leadership deserve serious study and practice by the leader or manager wishing to implement lean management and culture. I have tried to aid that study with my Udemy course on Lean Leadership and Lean Culture.