Mar 032010
 

Note: This article was originally published in the Batavia Chamber of Commerce newsletter, Batavia Business.

My Father spent his career in quality management, so I was raised with a deep understanding of what quality means, how you get it, how you create systems to deliver it and what to do when those systems fail. Like the humans that create them, all systems are imperfect and will fail to meet customer expectations at some point! Anytime a customer is disappointed—with a product or service—you have a quality problem.

25 years ago, I was a newly-minted sales manager for a chemical company. A customer who used our dye to manufacture industrial paper towels discovered that one of their customers was upset because something was leaching from the towels and turning water brown. They wanted to cancel all future orders because they feared some unknown, potentially hazardous chemical was threatening the health of anyone who might grab a towel.

We did two things. First, we worked with our customer to adjust the amount of dye they added to their towels. Then we called our chemical plant to get toxicity data for the dye—it was completely harmless. Those two actions allowed our customer to report that the cause of the problem was found and corrected, and to document the dye was harmless, which no other towel suppliers could do. The quality “problem” lead to both an improved production process and a competitive advantage.

On the other hand, I once consulted with the president of a jewelry manufacturing company. He loved sales, but hated manufacturing. The only time he entered the plant was when there was a problem and it was time to “kick some butt.” The moment the plant door flew open and he appeared, the manufacturing people literally ran for cover. With everyone pointing fingers to avoid being the one whose derriere was to be roasted, few problems were ever really solved, little competitive advantage was ever gained and costs remained exorbitantly high

There are two ways to deal with a system failure. You can target some individual, label them an inept, inconsiderate slob who doesn’t care about customers, and punish them. Alternatively, you can realize that problems are almost always systemic—the weakness is in the system—and beyond the control of any one individual.

If you follow the first course, you will drive fear into the organization, fail to solve the systemic problem, ensure it reoccurs and train people hide or point fingers the next time the system fails.

A more enlightened approach is to gather the troops, explain the problem, enroll everyone in finding the root cause, fix the system and celebrate success.

Most managers would be amazed how much employees want to help solve problems… and already know how. When I was that wet-behind-the-ears manager, Denis, a customer service rep, would call every so often with a customer problem and ask how to solve it. Thinking it was my job to fix the problem, I would wring my hands, talk to a few people and call Denis back with a solution. One day he called with a problem and I was stressed and frustrated. I said, “I don’t know Denis, what do you think?” He knew how to solve the problem…he always did. He was simply afraid to step on the toes of some young, unknown manager. I came to love Denis for his dedication, creativity and customer commitment.

No system is flawless…no system will ever be flawless. When systems fail, you can exclaim, “Oh God…a quality problem!” Alternatively, you can view it as a gift to help you identify and reinforce a weak link in the chain of events that produces your products and services. When seen this way, next time a customer has a complaint, you just might instead—with the use of one extra “o”—exclaim “Oh Good! A quality problem.”

Jan 282010
 

In the western culture in which I was raised, there is a model of leadership which is highly influenced by the Newtonian worldview. Newton, who first proposed the laws of motion, believed, correctly, that the cause and effect relationships of physical motion could be accurately described. The future, if you will, of balls on a billiard table could be foretold if we have sufficient information regarding the initial conditions, friction and gravitational influences. Combine those laws of motion with the belief that sub-atomic particles are much like billiard balls and you came to the conclusion that, given sufficient information about initial conditions, the future of the world could be accurately predicted.

Defining leadership based on this worldview is easy. We look for a person who has the ability to describe current reality, paint a clear picture of the future we wish to share, and identify a precise list of steps to get us from the current realty to the future we desire.

Let me discuss each of these three leadership characteristics and share some reasons why I believe they are of questionable validity.

A leader has the best description of our current reality.

The figure is often referred to as the Kanizsa Triangle. I have displayed this figure to many groups and ask if the white triangle is larger or smaller than the black. The majority typically agree they are, in fact, the same size. I then simply ask how many believe there are NO triangles in the picture?

This is a powerful metaphor for the kind of thinking I do all too often. I take small, incomplete bits of information and use them to create much larger, complete pictures. I don’t wish to recount how often I did this with my children. I would walk into the house after a stressful day, see 30 seconds of activity and angry children. I would turn that into a complete picture of what they are up to,who did what to get them upset, their motivation, what they were thinking and why they are wrong! Unfortunately, I continue to make the same mistake with co-workers and friends.
A leader has a clear picture of the future we wish to share.

We often refer to this as vision. We talk eloquently about the power of vision. “If you don’t know where you are going, any direction will do.” Unfortunately, we confuse vision as a compelling sense of direction, with vision as a precise picture of what the future should look like.

I once asked pianist Michael Jones about the importance of vision. Michael said, “There is a wonderful interplay between mastery and mystery. On one hand, you have the mastery of having and fulfilling a vision. But along with vision is imagination. Imagination is the path the heart loves to wander. You find yourself in places you had not conceived. The things I encounter at the piano I had not anticipated are the moments of grace I live for. It’s the mystery of finding things happening in my hands…composing through my fingers. This is not so much vision as it is life of the imagination. Unfortunately, we’ve been taught that the future we ordain can be fulfilled the way we ordain it. If we live according to those rules the possibilities open to us become limited…it becomes a relatively narrow life.”

There is an additional aspect of vision on which I wish to comment. We want, and need, people to be motivated and inspired by their lives and their work. I realized some time ago that the word “inspired” and the word “spiritual” have the same root. The words “motivation” and “emotions do as well. I find it difficult to be inspired and motivated unless there is a spiritual and emotional content to my work. I have to feel that what I am engaged in is bigger than I. To the extent a leader can paint a vision that has a deep emotional and spiritual context, I will be fully engaged in the enterprise.

A leader has a precise list of steps to get us from the current realty to the future we desire.

It is said that every action we take has intended and unintended consequences…the intended consequences sometimes happen, the unintended ones always do!

After the second world war, the United States build a highway system connecting major cities. While there were a number of reasons to justify the investment, one was that highways would save the declining inner cities. By facilitating the movement of goods into the cities they would become more available and cheaper. The unintended consequence? People fled. The highways made departure from the inner cities so easy that suburban areas grew almost overnight. It was suddenly possible to live outside the older areas of the city, show up from eight to five for employment, and retreat to a new home in a nice neighborhood for dinner. This “savior” of the cities actually may have hastened their decline!

Taxing authorities usually argue that commercial development is good because it will increase the tax rate, thus keeping other taxes lower. Commercial development, I am told, will help keep my property taxes low. A recent study of numerous American Cities shows that over time, commercial development and property taxes go up together…lock-step.

So much for the intended consequences of the actions we take. Peter Senge, in his groundbreaking book, The Fifth Discipline, said, the solutions we implement today will often lead us to even bigger problems tomorrow.

Leading by following

So where does this lead? In On Becoming A Leader, Warren Bennis says simply, “At bottom, becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself.” I believe is was Fritjof Capra who said, “Healing the universe is an inside job.” These are powerful thoughts. They say the leadership comes from deep within; not from external views or visions. Leadership emerges from clarity of self. The more I know what is truly important to me–the values to which I am deeply committed–the more clearly I will see the path I need to walk.

Michael Jones did not sell his first CD until he was 38…he has sold millions in the intervening years. In spite of falling in love with the piano at age 2, he was unable to admit to himself and others that his gift lie in his music. He set out to become a management consultant and change the world through ideas; ideas carefully crafted by others and respoken by him. Michael found his gift partly because an elderly gentleman in a quiet hotel in Toronto, happened upon Michael playing a piano, thinking he was quite alone and “safe”. This wise gentleman, touched by the wonderful sensitivity of Michael’s music, looked at him and asked, “Who will play your music if you don’t play it yourself?”

Some years ago I came to know an artist in Chicago. Andrew Young, had a promising career as a scientist, with many opportunities to pursue research and academia. “In college I had a love for art but didn’t feel it was appropriate to pursue; in fact, I was very much afraid of it. I had a lower drawer at my desk, sort of my “altar”, filled with pastels, water colors, water color pads and colored pencils, all of which were impeccably arranged, neatly sharpened and color coded. Three semesters in succession I signed up for and withdrew from a course in color and composition because I knew what kind of door it would open. I was trying to conceal something that was clearly boiling in my spirit.”

Tim Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Tennis, speaks of the way in which we normally teach sports. He likens it to a rubber mat with footprints. Unless the student steps on the foot prints in precisely the correct way, they are doing it “wrong”. What he came to learn is that the body has an innate sense of movement. The secret to improved athletic ability is to get the mind out of the way…thinking impairs natural ability.

What would happen if I stopped trying to live my life as if I had to place my feet on the correct space on life’s “rubber mat”. What would it mean if I followed my deep desires…to get thinking out of the way and make room to live life more naturally. For me this means living the life of the heart. Michael Jones said, “Our way of experiencing life, and our participation in it, becomes the art of all arts.”

I have had the privilege to know many people who have created wonderful institutions, art, music and ideas. Each of them are living lives largely dictated by beliefs, values and passions they would say, I think, are beyond their control. Each of them have pointed to significant moments when they needed to make a choice…and they chose to follow their passion.

So there is the conundrum. They lead precisely because, at the critical moment in their lives when they were called, they followed. They followed the inner voice that called to them. They took incredible risks…yet they chose the difficult, but extraordinarily joyful path. The path their heart called them to. Based on logic, analysis and cultural norms, each of them could have chosen a path of less risk…a path of greater predictable security…a path of less joy. But each of them chose a path of courage.

Each of them leads by following.