Why Leadership?

Sometimes, those of us who see the need to improve leadership to achieve better results are accused of having only a leadership hammer, so everything is a leadership nail.  So, why do I continue to stress leadership?  Because, as John Maxwell says repeatedly, EVERYTHING rises and falls on leadership.


I have been a certified Lean Six Sigma Expert (Raytheon’s term for a Black Belt) since 2004 and an ASQ Black Belt since 2006.  Over that time, I have led or participated in hundreds of improvement projects, large and small.  Some of these projects have been spectacularly successful, and others that used all the right tools, used them properly, and had apparently near flawless improvements came to nothing.  So, what’s a continuous improvement practitioner to do?  Analyze, and drive to root cause.  I quickly noticed some projects with no charter, shaky documentation, and bare bones improvement plans delivered outstanding results.  These projects had strong leaders. One of my early projects was chartered as a Six Sigma project but wound up applying mostly Lean tools to reduce waste on an equipment repair task for the US Army.  The team lead was all in.  She gave us tremendous support, and demanded improvements be delivered and sustained.  Result – $5M improvement almost immediately, with the customer sending us more business the following year due to improved turn-around time.


I also noticed projects with a flawless charter, outstanding documentation, and a great improvement plan that achieved nothing lasting.  One such early project was a product development that required certification for some parts and processes.  The certification process was well defined, and the external certification authority was willing to work with us to turn around the documentation paperwork.  Internally, however, we could not deliver approved documentation to the certification authority on time.  The team developed an improved process to internally process and approve the documentation.  The anticipated change would have resulted in a certified product available, with anticipated sales of $84M in the current year.  The team lead and the Black Belt (me) did not properly account for the existing culture and did not anticipate the resistance to such an obviously needed (to us) change, and did not properly lead change to implement the new process. The product did not get certified that year, and the company did not get the needed $84M in revenue that year.  Had I better understood leading change, and been able to lead the team better, the company would have been $84M better off that year.  Believe me, I went to school on that one!

Any improvement project is focused on achieving better results.  To achieve better results, the team must CHANGE SOMETHING.

If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.


To get a better result, a different result, you must change what is done.  If the inputs remain the same and the process remains the same, we have no reason to expect a different result.


A different input or a different process is a change.  If the change is not compatible with the organization’s culture, there has to be a recognition of what has to happen to change the culture of the organization.

Changing culture is like moving a cemetery;

you don’t get much help from the residents.


It requires leadership to communicate the need for change and guide the team through the change process.  So, back to the start; Why Leadership?  Every improvement project requires a change be implemented and sustained.  Implementing and sustaining a change requires leadership.  Improving leadership will improve your business.



*Perhaps “Disputed” would be more accurate than “Unknown.”  Most popularly, a version has been attributed to Henry Ford.


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Do your Employees know what YOU Want to Do?

As I work with different companies, I often hear people in leadership positions tell me “Leadership was easy when you were in the military; you just order people to do something and they have to do it.”  I am always amazed by that statement because a leader in the military will never succeed if she or he depends on ordering people around.  In fact, the only times I remember anyone giving direct orders was during Basic Training, or as a formation lead in flight.

Military leaders spend a great deal of time communicating the mission to those they are leading.  When the members of the unit understand the mission, they understand the plan for the mission much better.   More importantly, they can make appropriate adjustments to the plan as the situation changes.

I always try to find out, as I visit companies, how much the workers know about the strategy of the business.  If the workers do not know the company strategy, I find they are not very engaged.  They tend to do what they are told, and when the task is finished they wait for further direction.  When the situation changes, the really good employees will try to make adjustments, but without understanding the strategy they are sometimes just guessing.  If they guess wrong, they are usually reprimanded and thereby trained to wait on direction.  These workers quickly become disengaged, to the great detriment of the business (more on employee engagement on a future posting).

Like the military leader who has to make sure the team understands the mission, business leader need to make sure everyone understands the strategy.  The strategy has to be clear, and have specific goals.  Those strategic goals must be broken down by year, quarter, and month.  Those monthly goals must be flowed down to departments and individuals as weekly and, ideally, daily goals so every employee knows how she is contributing to the enterprise strategic goals each day.

Never tell people how to do things.  Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity. 

– General George S. Patton

Those strategic goals flowed to the departments and individuals tell each employee what they and the company need to accomplish, the “what” they need to do.  The next task of the leader is to make sure each employee can apply their ingenuity to determine the best “how.”  Leaders must encourage employees to make improvements and ensure they know how much latitude they have to try improvements.  Most importantly, Leadership must encourage reasonable risk taking, help the organization learn when the improvement doesn’t work out as expected, and reward ingenuity.  True, some businesses have less flexibility than others – for instance, processes that are certified by a government agency (such as the FDA or FAA) must remain compliant with the certification.  It is also true that these businesses have a procedure to consider and approve changes.

Military leaders explain the mission and expect subordinates to adjust the plan to take advantage of changes in the tactical scenario.  Business leaders can get better results by explaining the strategy, setting SMART* goals rolled down to departments and individuals, and let employees contribute their creativity and ingenuity to make the business successful.


*SMART Goals – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely (or Time bound).

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