Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Firefighting versus Process Focused Leadership

You can continuously cope or you can continuously improve – the choice is yours. Managers who spend their days putting out one fire after another are masters of coping. They go home from work exhausted but feeling good about themselves because they managed to overcome the problems and difficulties that arise constantly in businesses that fail to train their managers to become process focused leaders. Fixing things rather than improving processes dominates each of their work days. I recently witnessed this type of work culture at my local Sam’s Club.

Winter has been harsh here in the Midwest this year. With temperature well below zero and my car turning over at the speed of change in the US congress I decided to proactively purchase a new battery. Since we were planning a shopping trip to Sam’s Club I decided to purchase and have the battery installed while we shopped. When I made the battery purchase the mechanic asked, with hope in his voice, if I was taking the battery home to install it. They were busy and he noted it would take from 60-90 minutes for them to get to and complete the installation. I disappointed him by saying I would take advantage of the free installation and asked to be paged when it was completed. Over the next 90 minutes my wife and I explored the items in each aisle, had lunch, and waited for the page. When finally called I proceeded to the service area only to be informed that there was a problem. A very disappointed mechanic informed me they couldn’t install the battery because they did not have the 10mm deep socket required to loosen the battery clamps that held it in place. I asked what it would take to get a replacement socket and received a look of frustration and a head shake shoulder shrug combo as the response. I then asked how long it would take to complete the installation if they had the correct socket. Eight minutes was his response. I’ll be right back, I said.

A two minute walk later I was in a Home Depot. I selected a $1.98 10mm deep socket, used the self-checkout to make the purchase, and was back in the service department in about eight minutes. While the installation was taking place I spoke to a manager at the service counter. I explained the situation that had just occurred. When I reference that the problem was not that the mechanic didn’t have the required socket, but was instead the management problem of not having defined a process for tool replenishment I received a puzzled look in response. When I explained that I was a lean (continuous improvement) consultant who spent his time helping businesses improve their business processes she smiled wryly and noted I could spend a lot of time in her facility. It was quickly obvious to me my frustration may have been lessened by talking about the problem but this manager did not have the authority to make any real change. The promised eight minute installation cycle time was about to expire so I proceeded to the service area.

As I approached a different manager was engaged in a conversation with one of the mechanics. Still dreaming of getting someone to understand the “process was the problem” I corralled her and shared my story yet again. Her first question was, what size is the socket they need? Despite all my attempts to change her thinking she walked away repeating “10mm deep socket” over and over so she wouldn’t forget to order the mechanics one. She worked in a firefighting culture and she was determined to put this one out! If leadership at Sam’s understood and had passion for lean they would train their mangers in the basic easy to understand lean concepts that would result in process focused leaders in each of their clubs. If that was the case I could have had a two-way conversation about setting up a kanban replenishment system for the mechanics tools with some hope that it would be addressed after I departed. Instead I left with the feeling that a 10mm socket would be purchased and the mechanics would a get a butt chewing for losing or misplacing the original socket because businesses that fail to focus on process improvement also blame and point fingers at people.

May each of you have a healthy and happy New Year filled with joy and shared experiences. With renewed resolve put away your firefighter hats and focus on the process problems within your business in 2014. And as always - stay safe.