It was my first car. You’ll remember yours, the great memories, the funny quirks, how perfect it seemed … and perhaps you remember a few of the faults. My first car pictured here was a 1959 Studebaker Lark VI. It fit in my budget. The local technical college auto bodywork class practiced their skills for less than $50 in paint and had the car looking great, and the auto mechanic class rebuilt the undersized inline 6-cylinder engine for the costs of parts. I then added carpet that my Dad acquired, and after paying for new blue vinyl seat covers, she was looking pretty good. Yet, even with all that cosmetic and engine work, this car still didn’t steer well.
You’d have to be old enough to remember, but there were times when older vehicles had play in the steering. To further describe, you might turn the steering wheel 2-4 inches to the left before the wheels actually turned. The same would occur if you turned right. There might be a lot of play in the steering of an old car and that’s what was happening with my “stud,” as I lovingly referred to her. I’ve observed that this is also a common pattern in leadership teams. You may have invested in an engine rebuild through new equipment, training, and mapped out your processes to reduce redundancies and waste. Perhaps you’ve put some new paint on the outside with branding, marketing collateral, and a new website. Yet, intuitively you realize that your team is still not responding quickly nor heading precisely in the direction that you’ve turned the wheel. There’s play in your leadership steering wheel.
A Lean executive team creates tight teamwork and forces managers to lead rather than do. Lean is something more than just cost reduction. It’s increasing effective communication, reducing your time-to-market, your time to service and improving service quality, reducing risk exposure, increasing employees’ engagement, and reducing costs. More importantly, the point is to successfully gain all benefits simultaneously.
It’s a common business leader impulse to rush and adopt lean tools and certification programs. These mechanical, bottom-up approaches may create short-term value within a department or function, but not the breakthrough performance improvements that enable successful companies to become extremely competitive. My experience with entrepreneurial companies is that you need to learn from the top down.
Here are 7 steps that will effectively “lean” your executive team:
1. Purpose. Your team members need a sense of meaning, it is not enough to get new branding, have town halls or increase internal communications. When your goal is to push accountability as far down to the front line of your organization as possible, you must resist the urge to provide quick answers for expediency while interrupting the struggle and learning for your team. I advise clients to start this process with Core Purpose. You may then use Core Purpose to question proposals rather than provide yes/no answers. Your team will gain strength from the mental struggle.
2. Core Values. Values are conceptually the most basic of your lean initiative and will help you eliminate time wasted on activities that are not aligned with your Core Values in thought or action. It’s never enough to have Core Values in place or to put up posters on the wall. Core Values must become part of the daily conversations in your business.
3. Process. Use proven processes for your leadership team, like weekly adjustment meetings, quarterly/annual planning, and discussions on 3-5 year targets and a BHAG. You should also include job scorecards along with discussion frameworks for performance. Even slow moving behemoth companies have moved away from the antiquated annual review and performance conversation. What are you waiting for?
4. Problem-solving. Foster effective problem solving, particularly by collecting firsthand information and taking the time to think. A visit to the work floor is not enough. Visits in the field alone won’t create a problem-solving company. You must challenge teams with the difficult “why” and “how” questions. This approach will allow team members to struggle while learning how to solve problems on their own.
5. People. Commit to making others successful by challenging them to build their own skills. This is formalized with the introduction of job scorecards mentioned above. Strive to push as much responsibility as possible deep into your organization. Your success will be reflected in frontline employees that directly interact with customers. (See more in step #7 below).
6. Performance Dashboard. It is difficult for many leaders to learn the art of frequent, objective, AND constructive performance conversations. Lean leaders rely on daily huddles as the tip of the spear in performance discussions by summarizing the day’s objectives, review of the previous day’s success, and identification of potential opportunities for improvement - in a way that focuses on solutions (not blame). Dashboards are a visual approach to breaking down silos and improving internal communication, organization, and resource alignment when leaders make a commitment to prioritize work with one another.
7. Behavior Assessments. We could agree that Behavior Assessments fit under #5 People, yet in this lean executive process, it’s important enough to stand on its own. A detailed evaluation of your team members and an overall map of your team, based on a 360-degree review and the leader’s self-assessment, will allow you to identify where, and how, each leader can improve. Each should have a path of progress for growing into their (future) position in your growing company.
Organizational greatness has always started from the top, and by following the above seven steps, you can leverage the experience and talents of your business. Just like the replacement of my beloved “stud” tie rods, alignment of front end, and a brand new gear box were the right adjustments to gain tight steering, executives at all levels of your company will perform at their highest levels by creating priorities, eliminating wasteful processes, and through a combination of structure and freedom. Once accomplished, your team will quickly respond as you turn your leadership wheel. That’s when you should begin to teach them to do the same and tighten the steering of their own department.
Stay on the leadership road and keep it between the lines!