Organizations and leaders aiming to create a culture of continuous improvement, where lean thinking and practice thrive, take note: how management communicates with employees plays a critical role — and it’s often the missing element in many failed attempts at lean transformation. Here are six changes you can make to become a more effective lean leader.
1. Change the Way You Talk About Problems
“In a lean organization, employees have to believe they are safe in pointing out problems, allowed to offer their ideas for solutions and improvements, and respected as capable of the thinking required for problem-solving responsibility. The dilemma is that the behaviors of traditional managers do not communicate any of these beliefs or help create the kind of environment that invites or supports employee responsibility or initiative.”
For example, “Our habits as knowers and fixers are deeply ingrained in us and our culture as a whole. But there are small but effective changes managers and leaders can make in how they relate to employees when talking about problems that will make a big difference. As a starting point, I believe if leaders experiment with these five new behaviors, the impact on engagement will be remarkable:
- Asking questions they don’t think they already know the answer to.
- Listening to the person, not just the problem.
- Acknowledging they heard and what they heard (nothing does more to show respect).
- Asking questions focused on things they wonder about, not what they are thinking.
- Asking what help is needed or wanted.”
2. Focus on the Social Aspects of Leadership
“Using functional MRIs, researchers have identified several social situations in which our neural network that responds to threats is activated. These situations include conditions and actions by others that reduce our status or appearance of competence; make us uncertain because we lack information or clarity as to what is expected of us; seem to us unfair; make us feel we are not accepted by groups that are important to us or that we are losing key relationships. We react defensively to threats or “injuries” in these areas in our personal lives and in the social systems where we work with equal emotion.
At the most basic level, the forms of expressions a manager or leader uses in talking to an employee have profound social implications for the employee’s relationship with the manager, the workgroup, and the employee’s work.
Experiences in the same areas where we can be threatened (status, competence, predictability, belonging, and being treated fairly) can also bring us pleasure. The neural reward network in our brains releases hormones that make us feel good when we are asked to join a group or collaborate with others, given meaningful responsibilities and clear expectations, recognized for our competence or contribution, accepted or shown approval, and treated equally and fairly. These feelings reinforce our drive for positive social relationships and increase our sense of connection to and responsibility for others and the groups in our personal lives. They also increase our commitment to shared goals and our engagement in efforts for the common good at work.”
3. Pay Attention to Your Communication Behavior
“What do others hear when you talk to them about problems? You are trying to create an environment in which staff, peers, and coachees are engaged in thinking with you about problems. But what do they hear when you speak? Does what you say invite others to think with you, or does it mostly tell them what you think — and by implication what they should think? If this question makes you curious about your impact as a leader or coach, how do you find out? Here is a self-check you can try.
When discussing a problem with someone or coaching an employee or peer, ask if it’s okay to record the discussion. Be sure to explain that it is for you to listen to later to help you become a better listener or coach. And you can learn even more by going back to the other person after you’ve listened to the recording to ask them how they experienced the discussion. If you are having trouble remembering the last time someone came to you to report a problem or to get coaching, that may be data worth considering right there.”
If you are having trouble remembering the last time someone came to you to report a problem …, that may be data worth considering …
Consider: “What are we trying to learn when we ask a question? Are we trying to confirm what we already know or think, or are we sincerely opening the door to learning things we don’t know or believe? Why is this important? Why does the intent behind our questions matter? The distinction is important because the other person can sense what we’re doing. They can tell we are not sincerely interested in what they think. They understand we are just looking for agreement to what we believe so we can get on with what we want to do.
Consider how that feels. It basically says their role is to agree, and you don’t have enough respect for what you might know and think to want to hear what it is. That comes through; it is sensed by the other person whether that’s what we intended to communicate or not. It reduces the other person to an object we are using for our purposes.”
Learn more about how to analyze your interactions with employees by reading “Want to Be a Better Leader and Coach? Listen to Yourself.”
4. Listen — and Truly Pay Attention
“A simple fact of human nature: we listen all the time, but we seldom pay real attention to what we are hearing. Our minds are busy, chattering to themselves all the time, including when others are standing in front of us talking. Henry David Thoreau thought it a common enough phenomenon to say, ‘The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when someone asked me what I thought and attended to my answer.’
“What shows respect as a listener?
- Being present in mind as well as body
- Connecting with the person, not just the words
- Consciously attending to what is being said
- Trying to turn down or ignore the chatter in your head
- Acknowledging what is said as it is said
- Speaking to what was said (not to the ideas popping into your mind)
- Recognizing the other person’s feelings and concerns
That’s a tall order, but it is humanly possible despite our basic nature.”
5. Ensure Your Frontline Teams Complete the ‘Check/Reflect’ Phase of PDCA
“My first experience coaching PDCA problem-solving was with supervisors and team members on the plant floor in Toyota. They tended to name a problem then jump to a solution. This response was especially the case with many skilled maintenance people. “I’ve seen this before,” they’d say. “I know what needs to be done; let’s just do it.” There was little point in asking them to describe what they knew about what was happening or to explain why they thought their solutions were the right ones. So I shifted to asking them to help me understand what was happening and how they knew what to do. “Let’s go see. Show me what you think is happening,” I’d ask. Sometimes we saw what they expected. But, more often, we saw things they did not expect that called their solutions into question.
Whatever occurred during this “go see” process allowed me an opportunity to coach using reflection. For example, if the problem condition was what they expected, I could prompt recall by asking how what we saw this time was like what they had seen before. And what did they see this time that gave them confidence their solution would work this time also. If we did not see what they expected, I asked how what they saw was different from what they had seen before or expected and why they thought it was different. I also asked what change in their solution would be necessary this time and why. And I usually asked what they might have learned about problem-solving from what we found.
Next, I learned to use reflection proactively rather than reactively.”
6. Hold Senior-Level Leaders Accountable for Expected Lean Behaviors
“Having been somewhat effective in coaching problem-solving groups (including Quality Circles, see Part 1), I was eventually asked to “talk” with managers and a few senior leaders. These requests seldom came from the managers themselves. I quickly realized I had to use a different approach from the ones I used with teams and supervisors on the shop floor.
In most cases, the managers were struggling in some area, and a specific recent event prompted the ‘suggestion’ they talk with me. I took those events as a starting point for coaching. The managers knew why we were talking and expected they would have to talk, generally reluctantly, about the events or their areas of struggle. My coaching was all humble inquiry (even though I didn’t know the term at this point) …
I did not say, “Let’s reflect on what happened.” In fact, I seldom used the word. Instead, I simply asked questions to prompt their recall and thinking to see what sense they would make of their experiences themselves.”
Managing to Learn
An Introduction to A3 Leadership and Problem-Solving.