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What does developing people mean?

August 7, 2014
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Dear Gemba Coach,

Are people tools? Should bosses use people? What does development mean? How should we think about it?

Okay… deep question. To explore this, let’s go to a different gemba. In The Gold Mine, Bob Woods takes Mike, Phil and Amy to a yachting race to look at how two different skippers run their crew radically differently. [These characters return in Lead With Respect, the Ballés new novel about how to develop people to create a culture of continuous improvement –Ed.]

Imagine for a second that you are skippering one of these sailboats. You need to get the spinnaker up – the lightweight colorful sail one sees ballooning out of the front of the boat on reaching courses. This is quite a complex operation, and in any case you’re steering the ship as well, so you’ve got your hands full. But you’ve got a crew on board and you can use:

  1. Their hands: this is the most instinctive way to run people. You’ve got the knowledge and experience to know what needs to be done, so you order each crew member to do stuff step by step. You expect them to pay attention and be skilled enough to perform correctly every action you order. They’re extra pairs of hands to your brains.
  2. Their brains: This doesn’t come so naturally but is a different way to run people – you train them to perform the task autonomously. They learn to both do their job as well as coordinate with each other so the chute goes up on your say so but without your direct involvement. This has two advantages: first, it frees you to keep an eye on what else is going on and to spot if they run into problems they can’t see because they’re busy with their tasks, and second, it’s more fulfilling for the crew because they can feel responsible for getting the task done as well as the pleasure of working smoothly together.

In the first case you use people as tools, and in the other you develop teams. In a craftsmanship environment, the latter is supposed to come from the former. The artisan tells his apprentice what to do, in effect, uses them as extra arms, and through copying and repetition the disciple learns the craft. This is a rather slow process and very dependent on the skill of the artisan and his skill at coaching.

Today, we encounter this routinely as we go from one local restaurant (not chains) to the next. In some, the owner is really good at welcoming guests, cooking, and working the logistics, and usually waiters and waitresses reflect this. In others, the owner is not and, again, staff will mirror this.

Taylorism changed this process radically by (1) centralizing the method function – a central expert now devises the best method for all staff to work to and (2) pay for performance – having taken away the incentive to learn from the artisan in order to one day have your own shop, you have to incentivize people sufficiently so that they apply the prescribed method. Frontline managers evolve from examples staff try to follow in order to one day perform autonomously, to enforcers who make sure the prescribed method is applies. IT and computer systems have spread the Taylorist system to almost every human activity.

My Boss, the Computer

The combination of the Taylorist system and IT systems have scaled the use of human beings as tools to very large numbers. This HAS worked. The downside, of course, is that it doesn’t work very well because first, the IT system is not designed to deal with every specific situation (although post-Google search engines might be different) and secondly, it’s not that fun to work for the computer, so staff slaved to a software system tend to behave as bureaucrats – they do the minimum job but do not try to perform in unusual situations or better serve customers.

The lean approach is a revolution inasmuch as it is not a return to craftsmanship – why deny the benefits from a century of Taylorism – but it goes beyond by encouraging managers to be teachers rather than enforcers. I had this discussion yesterday on the shop floor:

  1. Manufacturing engineering comes up with the best known way to build the product – it’s their job to prescribe the assembly sequence and the correct tolerances at every critical step.
  2. Frontline management doesn’t simply enforce this method, but works with teams every day to understand the nuances of the job (how many turns of a screw give the correct tightness?) and how team members hand over tasks from one to the other.

If we return to the sailing analogy, there is a prescribed method on how to put the chute up, which is written in the sailing manual in terms of sequence of steps and what to pay attention to, but then the skipper can chose either to 1) keep the method to herself and tell each crew member what to do when or, 2) share the method with the crew and help them get better at their tasks and better coordinate amongst themselves.

Development, in that sense, means developing three dimensions of any role:

  1. Autonomy: the ability to solve specific problems on one’s own in the way the manager and other team members would like it to be solved.
  2. Teamwork: the individual ability to better co-ordinate with fellow team members and other specialists within the organizations in order to, collectively, come up with smoother better-flowing work processes.
  3. Initiative: the ability to spot problems or improvement opportunities, the presence of mind to call them out and the creativity to make suggestions on how to solve problems or improve and take action to try things.

Develop People Systematically

In any craftsmanship environment or Taylorist environment none of these three dimensions are obvious because chances are the default boss will resent autonomy (wishing to keep greater control) will misunderstand team work (asking for submission to the “team spirit” – i.e. to do what you’re told – rather than better coordination) and will discourage any form of initiative, seeing it as a challenge to his all-knowingness and source of further problems within the organization. Developing autonomy, teamwork and initiative requires great confidence in one’s own skills, in one’s relationship with one’s team and in one’s managers’ competence and caring. For this to work, the manager has to clarify with the teams:

  1. Which way we’re supposed to go: what are the success conditions? What are we trying to achieve, in terms of goals and objectives?
  2. What is the plan in terms of the main sequence of steps we’ll go through to succeed at the job or task?
  3. At each step of the plan, how do we make sure we’re doing OK versus Not-OK;
  4. Most importantly, how each of these points are explored and discussed continuously so that team members identifies areas for improvement and contribute their hands-on experience?

The conundrum, of course, is that there is no know way to make sure that frontline managers have the ability to develop autonomy, teamwork and initiative in their people – there can only be leading by example and hoping the right attitude will catch on. However, if the will to do so is there, the lean tradition has developed guidelines to how one can systematically develop one’s people. I was talking recently to Mark Reich, LEI’s COO, and from his Toyota past, he pointed out three core elements:

  1. Make them feel secure: people must feel free of physical injury risk and free of harassment, as well as secure in their jobs and so willing to commit to improvement.
  2. Continuous challenge to make people see problems and improvement opportunities, and develop new skills through training, job rotation, promotion etc.
  3. Utilize full capability by continuously improving value-adding in the job (removing wasteful operations).

The full lean system supports this:

  • Jidoka techniques such as stop and react at every defect are individual training techniques – every time an operator pulls the andon, the team leader first checks the understanding and performance of standards, and if the problem can’t be solved right away, the problem solving activity that follows is, again, about individual development.
  • Just-in-time techniques are all about improving cooperation between team members and processes. Starting from working every work station at takt time and one-piece-flow which involved very detailed baton-passing areas, to the larger issue that in order to produce just-in-time all functions must work in conjunction in order to keep the takt.
  • Visual management techniques (such as standardized work)with the explicit aim to visualize the difference between normal and abnormal conditions and thus support initiatives in terms of spotting problems, calling out, or imagining improvements.

Zombie Ideas Attack

Yet, to a large extent, an understanding of what the lean system really does hinges on the boss’s attitude of using it to leverage her use of further pairs of hands or her commitment to develop people. In the automotive industry for instance, where both Taylorism and lean have the longest history, I come across endless instances in which lean tools are used to further reinforce the boss’ control and management by pressure.

As we learn from military studies into authority and authoritarian personalities some people will always be ready to follow a controlling, even tyrannical leader, because somehow strength makes them feel secure but most people generally hate being told what to do or coerced into it. So far, the management model we’ve all grown up with emerged from Prussia’s Frederick II’s army (codified as bureaucratic thinking by Max Weber, one of sociology’s founding father), rapid automation and Taylorism. The challenge of these nineteenth century systems was to integrate uneducated farm laborers into mechanical armies or manufactures.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, we can safely assumed times have changed and our key challenge is now to motivate over-educated youngsters into creating greater value whilst reducing environmental waste. The times of the boss as an enforcer of rigid work methods are long past, and yet this zombie idea still walks around in organizations and attacks people. The deep contribution of lean thinking is showing how one can both lead and care by shifting from using others as an extra pair of hands to develop their own autonomy, teamwork, and initiative.

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