Monthly Archives: October 2014

LSS Leaders part 2: Born or made?

DNA-5 antennaIn my last post I posed the question as to whether lean six sigma (LSS) leaders are born or made and argued that it’s a little of both.  I also pointed to some key “ingredients” that are necessary to make a great leader.  Those ingredients include:

  1. Raw material
  2. Life experiences
  3. Character

The raw materials are the start of what makes a great leader and to some degree are things we are born with that include inquisitiveness, initiative, and involvement; something I refer to as the “3 I’s of Leadership”.  A natural leader has an insatiable inquiry to ask questions and always be looking for a better way.  They are also more than just talkers, they take action and have initiative to change the status quo.  Finally, they are also willing to get their hands dirty, so to speak, and not just tell others what to do, but to actually get involved in making progress.

In this post I want to focus on the remaining ingredients that complete a true LSS leader.  These ingredients are the “spices”, that when added to the raw materials, bring out the “flavor” in a true leader.

Experience matters.

When I was a recent college graduate I felt that experience was overrated.  Why did I need experience when I knew through education and training what to do?  What could experience teach me that I couldn’t learn by picking up a book or taking a class?  As many of you can imagine, I had a lot of growing to do, and after taking my first job as a manufacturing engineer I quickly realized how little I really knew!

Sure, education and training are important, but there’s nothing like actually doing what you’ve been educated and trained to do that confirms just how little you actually know!  I can still remember those early days thinking I knew everything to be a successful engineer only to quickly realize within a week of being on the job I had no clue how to take that learning and apply it to the real world.

Becoming a great leader takes time simply because time is needed to gain experience, and experience is needed to become a great leader.  Taking this a step further I would argue that it’s not just experience, but the “right” experience that is needed.

Finding the right experience can be a challenge, but two things that have stood out for me in finding the right experience are connecting with a mentor early in your career, and knowing how to say “no” more than saying “yes”.

I was fortunate enough to connect with a great mentor who helped me create a pathway to becoming a better leader.  When anyone starts out on a journey it’s always beneficial to connect with someone who has already been down the road you are traveling and can tell you about their experience and how you might learn from the mistakes and achievements they’ve had.

When you’re planning a trip to somewhere you’ve never been and someone tells you about their experience going there it creates not only excitement to experience what they tell you about, but it also helps guide your decisions as you take the journey yourself.

I can remember planning a trip to China and a friend of mine telling me about her experience in Beijing and where to go and not to go.  Knowing what she told me about the city helped guide my path to experience much more than I could have by just reading the travel guides.

A second component to experience is learning what to say “yes” to, or perhaps more so what to say “no” to.  Far too often we try to do everything possible to improve our abilities as a leader, and like Pareto suggested not everything is worth doing.  The challenge is finding the 20% that leads to the 80%.  A mentor can certainly help in this process, but also having the courage to say no more than saying yes can go a long way to staying focused on what matters.

Character counts.

Peter Drucker argued that great leaders have character, vision, and take responsibility, all of which I wholeheartedly agree with.  Vision and responsibility are fairly straightforward in that you have to set the direction on where you want to go, and take responsibility (i.e. take initiative, get involved) in getting there, but what is character?  How can one determine their character and whether or not it leads to becoming a great leader.

We all have characteristics of some sort.  Simply looking at the definition of character as, “the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing” leads to a question of what features / traits are those that make a great leader?

Getting others to follow when they have a choice not to.

The heading of this section is one of my favorite definitions of a leader.  We all have a choice to follow others, but this is especially true when leading a LSS project where, in most cases, there is no formal leader:follower reporting structure like there is with a supervisor and employee.  I would argue being a leader of a LSS project is far more difficult than supervising people, because your team truly has the option to follow or not follow your lead.

What stands out in great leaders are their character, and some of the characteristics I would argue define a great leader include humility, restraint, love, compassion, and courage.  Great leaders show humility in being able to admit it’s not all about them.  Jim Collins made this point clear in his best selling book where he described leaders of “great” companies who shared a common characteristic of being humble and not needing to be the center of attention in their organizations.

Great leaders can also restrain themselves and manage their emotions without blowing up when things go wrong.  They also have compassion and love for others, and put themselves in a role of serving their team’s needs.

Finally, they have courage.  It takes guts to be a leader, and without courage others are not likely to follow your lead.  This is one of the core values I have for myself that I describe as “humbly confident”.  It may seem contradictory at first, but I truly believe it’s possible to have confidence and still be humble, especially if you are constantly looking for ways to serve and love on your team.

Why does character matter?  Character matters because it leads to respect from others, which leads to trust, and trust ultimately leads to motivating others, which leads to results.  You can’t skip any of these and hope to motivate others into generating results.

So where does this leave us in determining if LSS leaders are born or made?  I would suggest it’s not so important one way or the other.  What is important is that if you want to truly become an effective LSS leader you have to first look within yourself and ask do I have the 3 I’s in me right now?  Am I inquisitive about my current work?  Am I taking the initiative to make a difference?  Am I getting involved and helping make a difference?

Do I have a mentor, and am I seeking the right experiences to become a better leader?  Finally, if I asked those around me to describe my character would they say I’m focused on serving others, am humbly confident, compassionate, restrained even when the pressure is on, and have the courage to lead even when it’s not easy to do so?

Answering these questions about yourself is the beginning of becoming a LSS leader.  What you do once you have the answers will determine whether or not you become a great LSS leader.


LSS Leaders: Born or made?

DNA-5 antennaThe debate on whether a leader is born or made will probably never be decided one way or the other.  Both sides of this argument have valid reasons to base their viewpoint from, and I would argue both are correct to some degree.  Part of me wants to argue that much of what makes a lean six sigma (LSS) leader successful comes from their DNA (born), but I’ve also experienced people who I thought lacked the DNA who have later turned out to be great examples of effective LSS leaders after being exposed to good coaching (made).

Like many of my weekly posts, this week’s topic was influenced by a book I’m reading that describes Jesus’ 12 disciples, the first of which is their leader, Simeon Peter.  The book’s author, John MacArthur, describes some leadership characteristics, traits, etc. of Peter that I quickly drew parallels to what I find in successful LSS leaders.

What I mean by “leaders” are not necessarily champions and master black belts (MBB), but more in a general sense a LSS leader is someone who is leading the charge in an organization to make LSS an integral part of the culture.  This can be anyone from someone who has little exposure to LSS (i.e. white belts, team members, etc.) all the way up to the “experts” (i.e. MBB’s) teaching and coaching those taking part in the effort.

Key ingredients.

In the making of a great LSS leader there are key ingredients, some I believe we are born with and others that can be added later, that I’ve found lead to great leadership.  MacArthur breaks these into three categories, the first of which I’ll discuss in this post.

  1. Raw material
  2. Life experiences
  3. Character

Raw material.

The raw material that I would argue are something we are born with include inquisitiveness, initiative, and involvement.  Looking back over the last few years through the lens of these raw materials, and analyzing the clients that I’ve coached, what came into focus was just how easily I could distinguish the great LSS leaders from the not-so-great by simply evaluating them on the three attributes.

Great LSS leaders are always asking questions.  They are never satisfied with the status quo.  Their motto is, “a new day, a better way”.  MacArthur writes:

“People who are content with what they don’t know, happy to remain ignorant about what they don’t understand, complacent about what they haven’t analyzed, and comfortable living with problems they haven’t solved-such people cannot lead.”

Reading this reminded me of a client I worked with a few years ago.  For weeks I had been coaching this black belt who was new to the organization that had the capacity (i.e. training, experience, knowledge, etc.) to be a great belt.  My coaching sessions with him centered on getting out of his office and taking what I refer to as a “shaking hands and kissing babies” approach to getting the word out about himself and how he could help others improve what they do through the application of LSS.

The analogy, which will be familiar to you if you follow politics, is similar to a politician seeking office.  You have to get out and meet people to find out what their needs are and how you can help them address those needs.  Despite my best efforts he never left his office, and years later has struggled to make an impact.

A second raw material that is needed is initiative.  I believe that if you have the first key ingredient, inquisitiveness, initiative comes naturally as a byproduct.  A question unanswered leads to a desire to find an answer.  Without the drive, ambition, and energy to answer a question your work becomes just a J-O-B!

In the same organization the struggling belt I just talked about, a few weeks before my assignment ended a newly hired black belt started, and on her first day she met with us for a short while to get acquainted, and after a few minutes of conversation she was off an running from one person to the next, asking questions, seeking to understand their issues, challenges, etc.  She is now one of their shining stars delivering millions in savings each year from the projects and people she is coaching.  She clearly demonstrated inquisitiveness and initiative that led to action!

The final piece of raw material is involvement.  Great leaders are always in the middle of the action.  MacArthur nails it when he states:

“A true leader goes through life with a cloud of dust around him.”

This is a great visual of what it means to always be in the thick of things!  People are hesitant to follow those who are unwilling to get involved.  A true leader gets out there and takes charge of the situation.  You can’t contribute to winning the game if you’re always sitting on the sidelines.

Looking back and comparing the two belts I worked with, it’s clear the one who was successful jumped into the game, while the other one sat on the bench talking about the game, but never put on his helmet and got involved.

Decoding your DNA.

So what now?  What if you find yourself in a situation where you’re on the sidelines like my struggling belt.  Should you leave the game and go find somewhere else to “play” or a different “game” (not LSS) to play, or is there a chance, with some help and prodding, you might find within your DNA you have the raw materials to be successful?

One thing that I’ve found is that even though I would tend to agree the raw materials of a leader are something we’re born with, these “materials” don’t always come out of us if we’re not in an environment that we find engaging.

For example, I would struggle to be inquisitive, take initiative, or get involved if I were working with a client in the tobacco industry.  I personally see this industry as a burden on society that causes problems and adds no value (as an aside, I also support their right to exist and fully believe in a capitalistic society where they are allowed to do business).  However, I also wouldn’t put myself in a position of taking on a client in this industry.

Unfortunately, what I’ve described is the current state of engagement in the U.S. where 70% of employees are not engaged in their work, which, from my experience, is a similar ratio to those LSS professionals I work with.  Most want to do a good job, but without my coaching and nudging on occasion they would probably not succeed.

I don’t know if there is an answer on how to help someone become more inquisitive, take more initiative, or get more involved.  What are your thoughts?  Have you been able to take someone performing at a low level and help them overcome their DNA?  What did you do?  How did you do it?  Email or leave me a comment with your experiences.



Gemba Planning: 6 Questions for Planning an Effective Gemba Visit

hooveringThis week I was reminded of how in our culture in America, while we like to solve problems at work, sometimes how we go about solving them lacks common sense.  For example, where do we occupy most of our time when taking on a lean six sigma (LSS) project?  Usually a conference room of some sort, but where is the problem actually taking place?  Not in the conference room!

I’m currently teaching a class on lean tools and recently offered a lesson on going to “gemba” that was a reminder that this is perhaps one of the most crucial moments in a project where the goal is getting a “real world” perspective on the problem / opportunity we are trying to solve, yet we often try to paint that picture without going out and seeing for ourselves what it looks like!

I like to use the analogy that early in a project you are trying to paint a “picture” of what the current state looks like.  If you are now standing in front of a canvas with a brush in your hand ready to paint would you prefer to ask questions and then paint based on verbal answers (aka sitting in a conference room), or would you rather look and see your subject matter in front of you and paint based on what your senses are providing?

Going to where?

I’m not a big fan of using the Japanese terms when it comes to teaching LSS because from my experience it doesn’t add much value to the process of teaching others how to improve.  Often I find that it just confuses matters more, and adds more complexity to work life, and who’s looking for more complexity at work!  I simply refer to gemba as “where the work is taking place”.  With that in mind, I’ve developed some questions that I have found to be beneficial when putting together a strategy for a site visit.

A common mistake I encounter with my clients frequently is that they have the right intentions when going to visit a work site, but they often fail to plan what they want to do once they get there.  This leads to the first question.

Question 1: What objectives do you have for the visit? Are you looking specifically for types of waste (i.e. DOWNTIME)? Safety concerns? Environmental issues?

If you aim at nothing you’re bound to hit it!  This seems like a no brainer, but having a plan before you set out to visit the work site is critical to success.  The phase you’re in can sometimes provide guidance as to what the focus should be.

For example, in the define phase you may be focusing on capturing voice of the customer; measure phase is typically current state process; analyze phase is often used to uncover and validate root causes; improve phase can be used to ask for ideas on solutions and collect improvement data; and the control phase can be used to audit results.

Question 2: How do you plan to setup your visit? Do you plan to talk with the manager of the area before the visit? Just show up and talk with the people at the work site?

I’m not one for surprise “inspections” because they generally put people on the defensive.  I’ve found it much more beneficial to let people know you are going to be visiting their work area, and sharing with them your objectives.  This not only sets everyone’s mind at ease, but it can also provide those you are visiting with a chance to prepare and provide more valuable information when you visit.

Question 3: What questions do you plan to ask?

This seems like it would go without saying, but far too often I find my clients just show up and don’t have a list of questions to ask to help achieve their objective.  The questions will vary based on your objectives, but no matter what you will want to come prepared with a list of questions (I usually strive for no more than 5) to help accomplish your goal(s).

Question 4: What materials or tools will you be using to prepare (i.e. checklists, forms, etc.)?

Tools and templates are a great way to prepare and capture what you uncover during the site visit.  This list of questions is one “tool” you can use to prepare, but others may include site visit checklists, an agenda, contact information, etc.

Question 5: How will you document what you see? Will you use pictures, video, sketches, etc.?

With all the technology available to us today there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to capture much of what you observe so that later you can “study” what you are most likely to forget.  I view this part of the visit as a way to study the “game film” and really dig into understanding where to exploit potential opportunities.

This is especially beneficial when you are looking at a repetitive process that you can watch over and over again.  Smartphone technology has come a long way in just the past few years so taking pictures, videos, and recording audio conversations are great places to start.  Just make sure to ask permission from those you are recording before you get started.

Question 6: What validation techniques do you plan on using? How will you ensure your questions, process map, etc. truly reflects what you observed?

This final question can be overlooked because you are right there watching and recording what is actually happening, but quite frequently I see my clients observe, record, etc. and then go back to their desk and create a value stream map, process flow, etc. and never take it out to those they observed for final validation.

Quite often what we see, and then later document, may not be a true reflection of the process.  A simple validation technique is to bring your process document back out to those you observed and share it with them to make sure what you’ve documented is true to the process.

Give respect to get respect.

These six questions can help you get started in putting together your plan to visit where the work is taking place.  There are countless other questions that could be asked, but from my experience these six are a great starting point.  One final point to remember is that you should always keep in mind that you are a visitor, and showing respect and appreciation to those that you are observing and visiting will go a long way in getting to the true focus of this exercise-helping others do what they do better.

To help facilitate this process feel free to use the template linked below.

Gemba template (Excel file)