Sunday, June 28, 2015

5 Characteristics of a Good Boss

The greatness in people comes out only when they are led by great leaders. We are all growing and learning, and we all need teachers and coaches to help guide us. We say at Toyota that every leader is a teacher developing the next generation of leaders. This is their most important job.” – Akio Toyoda 
There are numerous articles available on the subject of bad bosses. Besides the fact that these articles tend to be entertaining, talking and writing about a bad boss can be a form of therapy to deal with the stress caused by poor leadership.  
But what about good bosses?  Most people, at one time or another, worked for someone they would consider a good boss, but what is it about their style or approach that made them a "good."  Below is a list of the characteristics I have experienced throughout my career that I would consider make someone a good boss. I'm sure there are many others that can be added to the list, but these are the things that stand out when I think of the good bosses I've had over the years. 
  1. Provides Regular Feedback and Coaching:  The bosses who provide continual feedback based on real behaviors and actions demonstrate a true interest in the development and improvement of those on his or her team.  On the other hand, waiting for the annual performance review to provide feedback on areas to improve is ineffective and turns it into more of a check the box activity or justification for a specific rating. 
  2. Connects to the Workplace:  Good bosses go to the workplace regularly to understand what team members face on a daily basis.  The focus of the visits is how barriers can be removed, processes improved, and culture changed.  Bad bosses have "open door policies," which really means they are too busy to go to the workplace - and make team members come to his or her office to talk.  Rather than serving team members, the focus of a bad boss is much more on pleasing his or her boss.
  3. Always Strives for Excellence:  A good boss continually drives team members to improve.  This drive for excellence applies to the boss as well as team members.  Bad bosses focus on cost-cutting rather than improvement to meet objectives. 
  4. Question vs Tell:  Good bosses question team members to better understand issues and to help the team solve problems.  Bad bosses always have the answers and provide "solutions" to problems even when they don't completely understand the situation. 
  5. Inspires: Good bosses continually help team members connect the work they do to higher-level objectives and the organization's purpose.  This gives meaning to the work performed and helps inspire people to continually improve.  Bad bosses don't understand or care about higher-level objectives and focus only on getting things done quickly and cheaply so they look good. 
The most telling sign of a good boss is that his or her power comes from something other than position.  When I think of the good bosses I've had over the years, it was always a win-win relationship I had with them.  They provided me with opportunities to develop and improve, and I worked hard to help make them successful.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

What's Your Culture?

The culture of a company to me defines how excellent it will be, how helpful it will be, how ambitious it will be, how innovative it will be . . . And in my mind, [Apple] wouldn’t nearly be where it is today without [its] strong culture.  It would not.” – Tim Cook, CEO, Apple, Inc.*

How would you describe your company’s culture?  Would others describe it in the same way?  Is it the type of culture you want the organization to have?  How do you know?

Most leaders today appreciate the strong connection between culture and performance.  Understanding the importance and actually doing something about it, however, are two different things.  Culture is generally considered one of those softer issues that is difficult to change.  Because of this, many leaders either ignore it or attempt to drive small, less formal adjustments hoping that things will change for the better.

It’s Still About Closing Gaps

One of the characteristics of lean thinking is that it is deliberate about identifying and closing gaps.  It does not matter whether a gap is related to hard or soft issues - if it is something that interferes with the ability to achieve long-term objectives and, ultimately the vision, it needs to be addressed.

The first step to changing the culture is to clearly describe what you want the culture to be.  This means defining the organization’s personality, and includes elements like values, practices, teamwork, leadership style, etc.  It is important to be clear about what these elements look like – i.e., how you will know when you have them.  As an example, if you want the culture to be one where people continually identify and solve problems, you may be looking for an environment where people have an investigative mindset, are trainable, and are able to work together to drive improvement.  You may also want an environment where people are comfortable making problems visible.

Once the ideal culture is clearly defined, you will need to assess the current culture in terms of the ideal.  In other words, determining the gap that needs to be addressed.  It should be obvious that this step requires an open and honest look at the organization’s current culture.  If the organization is not open about potential problems with its culture, there is little chance of driving sustained improvement.

After the cultural gaps are identified, the job becomes prioritizing and closing – or more realistically, shrinking – them.  In the problem-solving example above, you may determine that the hiring process is lacking the ability to identify candidates with the right mindset before hiring, and that the people doing the screening and interviewing need to be trained to identify whether a candidate has problem-solving traits.


There is likely nothing more critical to the organization’s long-term success than its culture.  Without a strong and focused culture that supports the company’s defined purpose, any success due to an innovative product, financial maneuver, or being in an industry with strong demand will not last.  Strengthening and focusing the company’s culture is the only sure way to assure that the its success results from a deliberate and sustained effort rather than luck.

*From Apple’s Tim Cook Leads Different, Fortune Magazine, March 26, 2015

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Many Benefits of Going to Gemba

You can observe a lot by watching.” – Yogi Berra
One of the basics of lean thinking is connecting to gemba.  Attempting to create a lean culture without establishing a habit of Go and See – at least at the leadership level – will likely result in poor results and disappointment.
What is not always understood, though, it that effectively instilling a culture of go and see requires much more than just visiting gemba.  The real benefits of the effort occur when leaders truly connect with the workplace in such a way to gain an understanding of what is really going on.
Why it’s Important
The reasons and benefits of building and continually strengthening a connection with the workplace include the following:
  • Showing Respect: Respecting people is one of the fundamental elements of lean thinking, and visiting the shop floor to talk with people, understand their issues, listen to their ideas, and help them succeed is one of the best ways to show respect;
  • Seeing the Problems: Leaders need to know what is really going on in the workplace, and regular visits to gemba is an excellent way to do this. Whether visiting the shop floor, a service center, or customer sites, connecting with gemba is necessary to overcome the natural tendency of people to hide problems from leaders;
  • Improving Catchball: The catchball process is critical to focusing efforts and continually improving toward the company’s vision. When leaders are closely connected to the workplace, the catchball conversations can begin at a higher level and be much more effective;
  • Understanding What Help is Needed: The job of a leader is to enable the teams he or she leads to succeed.  Doing this requires a clear understanding of the barriers and frustrations of team members – something that can only occur through regular visits to gemba;
  • More Effective Support: Those who are tasked with supporting the shop floor will do a much better job when they connect with the people they support and understand firsthand the problems and issues they face;
  • Coaching & Developing People: Effectively coaching and developing people requires regular contact in real situations. Regular visits to the workplace to engage team members in conversations around problems can help develop the ability to address the problems on a daily basis.
Creating the Culture
Creating the habit of go and see requires understanding the cultural barriers to open and honest communication around the problems people face.  If leaders rarely show up in the workplace or do it only when major problems occur, people will tend to hide problems and avoid interactions, setting the organization up for sub-optimization or much more significant problems in the future.
Coaching through the initial visits is critical to assure that the right conversations are taking place during the visits.  It is also important to get people to understand that a “gemba walk” (a term I’ve never liked) is much more than a walk, and actually includes observation and learning.
Establishing a connection between the company’s leaders and gemba will break down a significant barrier to transformation that, although difficult to recognize, is necessary to drive improvement.  Lean is a great way to make the vision a reality but, without a connection to gemba, will result in little more than frustration, disappointment, and unsustainable gains.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Is Management a Liberal Art?

"[Management is] an integrating discipline of human values and conduct, of social order and intellectual inquiry, [a discipline that] feeds off economics, psychology, mathematics, political theory, history, and philosophy. In short, management is a liberal art..." - Peter Drucker
It is not new or earth-shattering to say that businesses need specialists in order to be successful.  Having people with specialized knowledge in areas related to the company's products, services, processes, network infrastructure, etc. enable the ability to serve customers and meet objectives on a continuing basis.  What is not often recognized, however, is the idea that generalists – especially in leadership positions – are just as critical to the organization’s success.
What is a Generalist?
A generalist is someone who has broad knowledge and skills, and understands the organization's high level system, including the hand-offs and interactions between people and processes.  A generalist is not usually interested in working and developing his or her skills within a single area but, being more of a systems thinker, is more motivated to learn about the big picture.
An organization can have the most talented specialists in the industry but be completely ineffective if these people are not able to agree on what's important and work together to turn their combined talents into commercial success.  By understanding the system, the generalist can bring value to the organization by focusing on overall company performance rather than attempting to optimize any single function or area.  For this reason, generalists often excel in leadership positions and cross-functional roles like project management and planning.
Why Generalists Are Necessary
By clearly understanding the company's high level value stream, the generalist is able to continually align the objectives of an area to those of the organization.  Creating the line of sight from the work performed to high-level objectives is a critical, but often missing, element of leadership in many companies.
No matter how talented a company’s specialists are; without a common direction and continual effort to improve the way people interact and work together, there is no "organization" - there are only individuals working on what each feels is most important.
Peter Drucker wrote that management is a liberal art in that it requires skill from many different disciplines including psychology, sociology, history, and others.  W. Edwards Deming included psychology, learning, variation, and systems thinking as components of leadership in his System of Profound Knowledge, connecting them to successfully motivating, aligning, and developing people toward the organization’s purpose. 
Harnessing the Company's Talent
The obsession many companies have had with specialists over the years has created a shortage of generalists that is hampering growth and success.  As a result, many companies are full of great ideas, new technologies, and brilliant technical minds but aren't able to transform them into consistent commercial success.  A company may be staffed with highly skilled scientists, engineers, and chemists, but if it is not turning its knowledge into viable products or services, it is compromising its future.
Whenever hiring or promoting someone into a leadership position, a person with a varied background tends to be more effective than someone whose experience and training is completely focused on the function the person is expected to lead.  For example, a candidate for a quality management position who has experience in procurement and/or operations in addition to quality is often more effective than one who only has quality control or quality assurance experience .
It's in the Mix
Success in business requires having and leading people to consistently achieve stretch objectives that are aligned with the organization’s vision.  To do this successfully requires respecting the different talents people have and understanding how best to position and organizing everyone to serve the customer effectively.  A critical element of this involves having the right mix of generalists and specialists to assure success.