Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Value-Added Work of Leaders

I think we can all agree that in order to develop a culture of continuous continuous improvement, we need to learn how to go from being the boss to becoming a coach. Coaching athletes really is a great analogy if you think about it. Many of the greatest coaches in the history of the big four American sports (football, basketball, baseball and hockey) were average to below average on-field performers. The on-field performers are the experts at what they do. Many are, in fact, amongst the very best at what they do in the entire world. The same can probably be said of the athletes you work with each day. I bet that many are amongst the best in the world at doing what they do every day. Think about it. If an employee has been on the job for 10 years, he or she has probably spent ~19,200 hours doing what they do. (that's if they work 8 hours for 240 days per year). I bet they are pretty darn good at it. One of my favorite sayings is that "it is disrespectful for ME to fix YOUR process. (Why? Because I'm probably not qualified). We know that "supervising" and "overseeing" is completely non-value added work (your customers won't pay extra because someone is well supervised). So what exactly is the value-added work of leaders? 

1. Show up. How many hours per week do you find yourself where the value-added work is being done, coaching people? People want to get causght doing what they think YOU think is importamt. Make showing up part of your standard work. The more often you show up, the more likely people will share problems with you. Which is a good thing! If you only show up very other Shrove Tuesday, the interaction will be superficial: "How are things going?" GREAT! "How bout them Mets?" "Particularly nasty weather we're experiencing, eh?" (Talk about non-value added). The more you show up, the more you will understand how to help them see and solve problems. 
2. Ask questions. This is one way to show respect. One of the reasons I LOVE an A3 board full of problems and suggestions is because I can go to the board, walk over to whomever owns the project and ask them to "show me". I have done this thousands of times, and I can count on one hand the number of times someone didn't take the time to show me what they were working on. By asking questions (and not simply giving out answers), there is a transfer of ownership. One of the hardest skills in TPS is to resist answering questions with answers. Instead answer questions with questions. There is nothing more dangerous than an entire company of people who believe they own the place!
3. Listen agressively. Another very hard skill to master. It takes practice and sometimes years to master. Do you ever catch yourself nodding your head like a bobble-head, thinking about what you will say after the other person finishes talking? The opposite of ownership is employee-ism. That is where people believe "they just work here?" It comes from a sense of hopelessness because they believe nobody listens to them anyway.  
4. Show up some more. Follow up. Check back. If you tell someone you'll get back to them, get back to them. Think of the people who do the value-added work as your customers. You wouldn't give your customers lip service just to placate them, right?
5. Show gratitude. One of the advantages of showing up (going to GEMBA) is you will find yourself in the presence of people who are smart and care about your company as much as you do. In the words of John Wooden (legendary UCLA basketball coach, "Seek opportunities to show you care. The smallest gestures often make the biggest difference."

Managers maintain the status quo. Good coaches take teams to places they never dreamed they could go.  THAT is the value-added work of leaders!


  1. Bill, I love this blog! You can never say you care... you must show you care. I have had tremendous success building my team by just showing up and always showing respect and admiration for the people who really know what's happening on the floor. It simply breaks down barriers and lowers the stress level. It is difficult to be creative when you are stressed out... however, when we all feel like teammates, a lot of improvement happens. Gordon Richard

  2. Gordon, thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment on this. I'm thinking I might follow up with lowering the stress level. Can't wait to come see your place one of these days my friend