A lot of research has been put into studying the perspectives and values of the millennial generation that is currently entering into and engaging in the work force. One of the more interesting pieces that make up this demographic is the value they place on social issues. They have a clear vision of where they fit in the world. There is a recognition that as citizens of our society they enjoy a prosperity and quality of life that is unparalleled in the history of man. This understanding has created a sensitivity to issues around justice, fair play and an insistence that their prosperity should not come at the cost of anyone else.
It is manifested in a multitude of causes that are rapidly evolving and growing as this generation grapples with the realities of addressing inequality. Fair Trade, Direct Trade, Micro-Financing and a host of other movements have sprung up to address these concerns. In terms of how companies can tap into that social activism there are already a number of excellent studies that have come out but what I want to very briefly explore is how this outlook may impact how millennials lead in the work place.
As I looked at the research into this area I was surprised by two things; first that millennial's clearly understand that they can be good leaders but are lacking the skills and experience. That having been said they are also clear about challenging the current definitions of leadership as part of aligning those views with their own. In a word, they know they need some skills and training but they also don't agree with the current definitions of leadership and are not afraid to explore other models.
They have been brought up in a culture of collaboration and they are generally much more comfortable in that setting. Add to this their world view that all should benefit from the activities that generate wealth and one begins to get a sense of what kind of leadership they envision.
They want to lead teams collaboratively and in a manner that benefits all on the team. There is a heavy emphasis on engagement and meaning and issues such as status and money are actually secondary considerations for them. They would rather make less money if it meant they could be in a work place that acknowledged them and the group and had meaning for them.
Contrast this to the "boomer" corporate ladder climbing and in a sense they have turned this on its head. Instead of climbing the ladder so that they have more people reporting to and working for them they instead look at promotion as a means to an end which is typically a greater opportunity to benefit their team. Instead of "the higher I go the more who serve me" they adopt a "the higher I go the more people I can help and serve" approach.
Lets be clear this is not a new idea and the concept of servant leadership, for example, has been around a long time. The difference is that there is a far broader scope of agreement among this group and this is the kind of leadership they relate to the most and want to emulate.
So all in all they present an interesting paradox. They know they lack some skill and experience to be effective leaders but are not afraid to challenge some of the current leadership approaches that don't align with their world view. The challenge is what do you need to do to provide them with that training and to utilize that passion to allow them to succeed? Upside down or right-side up? You decide.
As a leader you have established coherence and are doing a good job of interpreting the company to your staff. You have established a climate that is safe and incubates innovation and growth. You have allowed staff to set challenges to meet with regard to team and company goals. At this point your team truly has been transformed. They are clear about what is expected of them, they are collaborating and looking for new ways to improve performance and people are really pumped about the work. So what is left?
The last step to creating a permanence for your continuous improvement culture is to create an expectation that this work is going to be acknowledged and each victory is an opportunity for celebration. Sounds easy enough but the majority of change initiatives that fail will often fail around this principle. How many times have you seen processes or methods implemented only to note months later that things have gone back to the way they were before?
Like breathing, celebration should be organic and not contrived. I suspect that this is where most of us tend to overthink things and in making celebration too onerous we eventually fall out of the practice of it.
In applying this approach you will have created an environment that is rich with things to celebrate. Every team member is tracking metrics and you have a clear idea of the behaviors you want to see happening on the team. Make it a daily practice to look for those things and celebrate them with your people.
This does not have to be complicated. In one company I worked with a supervisor created a schedule to review the team metrics being posted. He would walk out to the metrics board once a day and review the results and just leave his initials on the sheet. No big deal right? One day after I saw him do this I did an informal check with the team and asked them if they knew whether he had seen their results? To a person they said he had. I know each of them had not gone up to the board to check but so important was it to the team that when one person saw it they would tell the rest! It may not seem like folks are noticing but they are and for them that kind of acknowledgement was a celebration!
If that seemed simple lets take it a step further. When you get out from behind your desk and take the time to simply go and see what your team are doing, its a celebration. This truth has been borne out by countless observations and if you have risen through the ranks you know this to be true - every person on a team can tell you which leadership spend time with the team and which don't. Sadly too often the perception is that the higher you go the less time you need to invest in the people who report to you.
Our goal with this process is to reverse for leadership what I call the 90/10 principle. Most leaders will tell you that they spend 90% of their time dealing with 10% of their staff who are under performing. There are lots of reasons for that but most of them fall into the false belief that we must be doing something right if we are spending time working to fix these things. But stop and think about that for a moment. What is happening with the other 90% who are doing their job? Typically nothing. Continuous improvement shifts your focus as a leader from diving into the weeds with the 10% group to celebrating and driving performance with the 90% group. Where do you think you will see the greatest results?
Most importantly celebration is crucial to sustaining your team's performance because nothing kills performance quicker than lack of recognition. We think that because someone is doing a good job we can let that slide but nothing could be further from the truth. Don't wait to make celebration some thing big and cumbersome, a pat on the back, a word of thanks or even just asking how someone is doing can be a celebration. Don't wait, celebrate!
In our first installment on this topic we discussed that we are all wired with a competitive nature and that nature can be harnessed for continuous improvement. As a leader your role is to direct that drive into something productive and not destructive through establishing coherence and a safe climate. When this is done effectively then getting staff to determine and track their own metrics (in alignment with the team and company goals) is the first step in creating sustainability in your continuous improvement efforts.
The next step toward this sustainability is about using the information that your staff have been collecting. This really becomes a milestone in the process of establishing continuous improvement. While there may be many ways of achieving this I have found that the most successful approach can be broken into two pieces.
First establish regular meetings with your staff or group around performance. If you are in operations that will most likely take the form or pre or post shift meetings that happen on a daily basis. If you are corporate it could be in the form of weekly or bi-weekly meetings. In each case time must be made for staff to report on performance in their area and discuss with peers overall group performance.
I cannot overstate the crucial role you and your leaders will have in this process! The nature of these meetings must be focused on group goals and performance in a frank and non-judgmental spirit. Demeaning or negative comments directed at specific individuals must be avoided at all costs as your goal is to solidify that safe climate. Your access to this crucial information is very much incumbent on making sure it is safe for staff to share it.
You will need to be patient as this may seem awkward at first. I have timed some of these initial meetings where with a group of 20 operators it took them a grand total of one minute and forty seconds to cover all the areas of operations! Yet within very short order, with the patient guidance of their supervisor those meetings grew into very detailed 30 minute meetings that left everyone informed and ready to perform.
As this sharing of information begins to take shape the second and equally important piece is the development of an opportunities list. Your group or team will begin to share information and often as one expresses frustration over one area another will have experience and knowledge to share with regard to possible solutions. I call it tribal knowledge - that collective wisdom that is dormant in the group and generally untapped.
A lot of this sharing of ideas will be informal but you will find as the group matures that more ideas will be generated for improving processes or performance and those need to go onto your opportunities list. This list will become a metric in its own right as you and your team move through addressing and exploring these ideas for improvement.
This list and what you do with it is the "gold" that you have been carefully mining for and cultivating on your team. It is the heart of continuous improvement and each and every idea regardless of how small it may seem has an actual dollar value attached to it. This can be done in small groups or it can be done across entire companies. There is no limit to this approach with regard to scope as long as you and your leaders remember to provide coherence, a safe climate and a challenge to rise to.
Lets review what we have explored in this discussion so far. A leader's role is to create Coherence, to provide meaning and context for their company. Arising out of that is Climate and creating a milieu of consistency and security for staff to function and to innovate. You will notice incredible changes on your staff by this point but now the work of "setting" this performance in place as a permanent feature of your company begins.
You must create an expectation of meaningful challenge as the fist phase of making continuous improvement sustainable. We all want to do good work and we want to know where we stand with our peers, our boss and the competition. We are competitive creatures by nature. You don't have to look too far to see evidence of this. A good portion of our leisure time (and for some of us not so leisure - lol!) involves activities around either participating in or watching sports or games of some type. Have you ever gone out for an evening of bowling and not kept score? How about golf or hockey? Competitiveness is woven into the fabric of what makes us human.
As a leader you need to tap into that inclination to compete. Let me add a quick caution here before going on. You cannot skip coherence and climate and jump straight to challenge. Too many well meaning leaders have torn the fabric of their companies or groups to shreds with misguided competitions that actually inhibit performance rather than drive it. Once you have created the context for the team and ensured a safe climate to pursue innovation then you can look at challenge.
Where does that start? Honestly it starts with you but it is initiated with each and every staff member. What does that mean? By this point you should have a pretty good idea of what you need each of your staff doing to promote and achieve the goals of the group or company. The way you confirm that is to get them to set their own metrics for performance. Getting your staff to set their own metrics is important for several reasons. First it will confirm to you that everyone is on the same page and the metrics they are setting align with your goals or the company goals. If they aren't you get the opportunity to guide those staff through a "course adjustment" so that their metrics come into alignment with your goals and they will see how they fit.
Second and more importantly having staff develop their own metrics will allow you to tap into that natural competitive nature we all have. You can give them metrics to be sure but they will be "your" metrics and not theirs. Let them develop their own metrics (under your discrete guidance) and they will "own" them.
Keep a couple of things in mind. Metrics should be simple, measurable and tied to achieving group or company goals and they must be personal. That is to say that each staff should be tracking their metrics but ensure they know they are competing against themselves and not others on the team.
When I have walked leaders through this I tell them to develop the habit of visiting staff daily and getting them to explain their metrics and how they are tracking them. I tell them to let the staff do the talking. When folks show their own metrics (and you have created the right climate) they will be eager to discuss their performance. In addition they are now driving their own performance and you only need to provide encouragement.
It is important that this phase be allowed to grow organically. Don't push it but let staff become comfortable with their metrics and eventually without too much prompting they will start to talk with each other about it. That's when the magic will really start to happen.
We will take up that discussion in our second installment on creating an expectation of challenge.
In this short piece lets explore the first natural bi-product of coherence. That is climate. Climate is the milieu that a leader creates for their team or company. If you as a leader are successful at providing direction, interpreting the company to their team, providing context for where they fit in, how things get done and setting them free to explore how they can add value in their roles you have established the foundation for what kind of climate your team operates within.
What solidifies that climate is the consistent application of those principles. That consistency creates a climate that is safe to function in and safe to innovate and take initiative. These are the key ingredients of engagement. A workforce that is confident in their understanding of the company and how they can help are more willing to take risks, generate ideas and "own" those ideas.
Herb Kelleher the founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines is a good example of this. As a leader he was able to provide coherence to his employees with clear messaging around the values of humor, independence and respect. He defined the company to them and spoke often of how they fit into it and through policy and application encouraged them to function independently and rewarded them for it. He believed that it created a workforce that was much more flexible and able to adapt quickly to the ever changing demands of the airline industry. In 1991 Midway Airlines went out of business on a Friday morning and by Friday afternoon Southwest staff had physically taken over every Midway gate at the Chicago Airport. He wasn't even consulted at first but was brought into the loop later. They wound up with all those gates and he was proud of the quick thinking and initiative that his group took.
Much as he is prone to give the credit to his employees make no mistake that without his efforts around coherence and the climate that he created this would never have happened. People don't take initiative when they don't feel safe to do so. There is an old axiom that so aptly applies to what happens when people don't feel safe to take initiative - "nobody moves - nobody gets hurt" and nothing gets accomplished.
By the way there are no short cuts to creating this type of climate. Consistent messaging and interpretation of the company to staff are the only way to create the type of security and frame of mind that fosters innovation. If your staff are unsure, tentative or unwilling to step out of their comfort zone you need to ask yourself what kind of messaging and therefore what kind of climate are you fostering?
Over the next few articles we are going to explore four simple principles for performance that those leading teams, groups or companies can easily remember and apply. They are Coherence, Climate, Challenge and Celebrate. Let's start with the first principle Coherence, which is really the foundation for the others.
Coherence is an all encompassing word that covers a multitude of daily practices and activities. It is at once both broad and minute in its application. It is something that is crucial at every level of leadership and work. It could be confused as simply communication but it is so much more than this. It involves not only the transmission of purpose, task and outcome but it also provides for everyone in the group meaning and context for how things are done, why things are approached the way they are and how all things fit together. It provides perspective that the leadership and group have with respect to the value and role of its members.
Let me share a rather informal but good example of how leaders can provide coherence. I did some work with a oil and gas service company and spent time meeting with various folks getting an idea of the culture and goals of the company. What was truly fascinating was the number of stories retold to me about the founder and owner. People could relate to me why certain brands of trucks were bought over others because they were the first truck supplier to take a chance with the then new company. Who they used for tires, again a local manager of a tire company came out personally at two in the morning to change a tire on a large rig. And most of all they could tell you how much staff were valued by the owner. Folks would come to work in the morning and find this old guy working under a unit and chat with him only to find out later he owned the company. He would show up in the shop and work along side the crews and he told them they were valued. He would take great pains to speak with them about their salary and bonus policy and how it was structured to allow the company to keep as many working during downturns so that folks did not need to be laid off.
How did he provide coherence? First he provided by example the importance of loyalty and appreciation - remember the trucks and the tires? He communicated too the value he placed in his staff and provided policies that demonstrated that commitment. He provided an example for a way of doing things that they all emulated. To say that the company was a reflection of his attitude and approach would be an understatement.
We don't expect all leaders to provide this type of example but the principle nonetheless is valid. Starting with the Owner, President, CEO and right down to the front line leadership it is the leaders task to communicate why we exist, how we behave, how we do what we do, what success looks like, what is important right now and who does what. The top leadership team should be absolutely clear about the answers to those issues and they in turn provide answers to their direct reports and ensure that information is passed down the line accurately and clearly. When that is done well there should be no confusion around expectation, goals and outcomes.
Why is this important? Two different companies, two identical operations positions and two very different approaches. In the one company the operator has no clue about those issues or an understanding of the answers and how they fit into the big picture. They do their part of the work, collect a paycheck and have minimal investment in the company. The second company operator has had these things communicated to them. They understand the overarching direction and approach and their role in it. They don't just see themselves as a small cog in a big machine they see themselves as a part of team who's goal is to outclass the competition. They can tell you how much downtime hurts the company and they are constantly looking to add to their opportunities list for how to improve their part of the company. One operator has coherence with their company and the other doesn't.
As a leader at any level there is an expectation that you provde coherence. You interpret the company to your team, you provide the context for how what they do is important, and you set them free to pursue adding value to the group and company. After-all everyone wants to be part of a winning team.
I remember discussing continuous improvement with a Frac crew a few years ago. When I started the discussion I was met with two distinct responses. The first was "I don't know how this will help, this is the oil patch s**t happens!" The second was "I don't know if this will work, our bosses have never given us much of a say on things." The first response was really a reflection of the lack of understanding and training with regard to how much things could be improved. The second response was an expression of the idea that they would like to have input but had never had the chance to provide it before and they were doubtful that was about to change.
This discussion is one that I have had many times, across many industries. This crew was not unique in terms of the discussion we were having. They had seen programs come and go and as with most staff in organizations they were looking to take their cue from their leaders. If they saw leadership embrace this then they were willing to at least try. The way I have seen this translate time and time again is the front line operations take their cues from their supervisors and the operations supervisors take their cue from area management and area management take their cue from corporate.
Here is where the challenge is most immediate. Messaging from corporate leadership has to be simple, focused and consistent. The more detailed or process intensive things are at the top the more likely that adoption will be limited. Think of it this way; with a new program every new step or process introduced from upper leadership is one more potential speed-bump to implementation. The messaging should be short and ought to be presented in the form of a question or two at each and every management and operations meeting. Are we doing .....? How do we know?
Your leaders from corporate right down to operations need to be on the same page with regard to approach so that as continuous improvement starts to percolate they will recognize it and encourage it. That is to say that everyone in the organization needs to be on board and be visibly not only showing support but demonstrating a level of understanding. Remember that while the rubber meets the pavement in operations everyone is taking cues from up the line. Because continuous improvement can and ought to be applied throughout a company every leader should be trained and conversant with how to apply it.
How important is this? Lets return to my Frac crew from the start of this discussion. When I started with them they were achieving in the low 50% range for efficiency. (As measured by percentage of time pumping while in control of the well.) To be clear this was not low and by all accounts was the industry norm. By training front line leaders and crews in how to set their own metrics and establish their own opportunities lists and follow up on them they brought their efficiency into the high 80% range in under a year! Not only that but they started to have months where they would run weeks in a row with 100% efficiency and no down time. In its early stages this is a fragile thing and it does not take much to knock the wheels off it. If leadership up the line is not acknowledging and driving this kind of performance it won't take. The fastest killer of continuous improvement is to ignore the improvements.
I witness phenomenal sensitivity to the feedback or lack of feedback from leadership and a good word rightly used goes a long way in reinforcing a continuous improvement culture. That's why an effective and simple training program for leadership at all levels is vital to ensuring success for your continuous improvement implementation. Your leaders need to be equipped to understand and recognize the culture you are looking to implement and be able, as a team, to drive increased performance. As the saying goes; "Until you are all singing from the same song book, you are just making noise not music!"
Lately I have found a common thread in my discussions with leaders here in Calgary. With a lull in the market there is a focus on taking this time for developing a culture of continuous improvement. The rationale is valid - take time now to develop this culture so that we can get more done with fewer people and when things pick back up we will be ready to move forward.
There are legitimate and strong reasons for wanting to move in this direction and they are not all just based on saving a buck. The reality is that we are undergoing a seismic shift in the work force with "boomers" moving into retirement which is creating challenges in a number of ways.
First there is a demographic gap in that the groups following after the boomers are smaller in size. There are fewer of them to go around and so companies are now determining how they can run effectively with less.
Second the groups moving up into leadership are for the most part entering these roles with less experience. That is not to say that they lack desire but surveys of these various sub groups (X'ers, Next'ers, and Millennials) consistently show them clearly concerned about their lack of leadership experience and skill.
For those looking in from the outside these moves to redefine their culture might look like austerity measures to deal with the slow down and no doubt for some that is all this is. But for those I speak with it goes far beyond austerity to something I will call simplicity. Often austerity and simplicity find connection in that when companies implement aggressive austerity measures it typically tends to bring a level of simplicity. The need to cut costs results in levels of complexity being removed and for the moment at least things become simpler. The difference between the two lay in their longevity.
Austerity eventually fades away as things pick up and profits start rolling in. In these parts the evidence of that can be found with those now famous bumper stickers that read "Please send another boom and I promise not to pee it all away like I did last time!" That really defines how many deal with austerity - tighten the belt now but only until things pick back up.
Simplicity however is long term. The goal is to create a simpler approach and a culture of continuous improvement built on a foundation of innovation. Herein is the dilemma. Many of the methodologies and trends currently being used while effective and beneficial are not simple. There is a certain logical inconsistency when we introduce complex approaches to creating a simpler company and operational culture.
Not that we throw the baby out with the bathwater but we need to take a different approach in terms of how to implement the useful bits of Lean or Six Sigma or Agile or Total Quality and highlight them in meaningful ways with our leadership and operations. In short we need to simplify our approach to creating a culture of continuous improvement.
The more "methodology" pieces you throw at staff the less likely they will be to adopt them. It becomes crucial then for companies to glean from their leadership just what pieces work and which ones don't. Now throw into that mix the advent of new leadership replacing this large retiring cohort and you begin to see the challenge being faced by companies in our city.
I suspect many of you are already wrestling with this issue. So my question is this; how are you creating simplicity as part of your drive to continuous improvement?