Lean Transformations Group

Putting New Leadership (AKA Problem Solving) Principles into Practice

As you may have read in my article, “The Modern Leader Creates the Conditions for a Problem Solving Culture,” problem solving is the core skill that most organizations haven’t developed (or at least haven’t developed nearly enough). If you know this is something that you, as a leader, would like to change in your organization, read on. This article is about what it takes to commit to making this change.

Changing your own leadership habits takes intention, action, practice, and more than anything, focus. Don't think of this as a big change program (that is blanket solutions thinking!); think of this as a small slice of time you put into learning about yourself and your habits. With this new awareness, then it’s about creating small experiments within yourself and at your organization.

Sharpen the Saw

Most people have at one point or another come across Steven Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. I read this book shortly after it was published in 1989 and found it extremely valuable for self-renewal and personal development. The 7th habit, “Sharpen the Saw,” in my opinion, is the habit that most people don’t take enough time to work on. You might think of stepping into the new role of the leader (in your own unique way) as your personal sharpening of the saw. 

Here are suggestions of what to focus on to sharpen your own saw.

1) Become a super learner

Think of yourself as the model of curiosity. Always question what is happening and then reflect on what you hear and see. On this point, I also love Thomas Oppong’s piece, “The 6 Habits of Super Learners.” I particularly like his suggestion of making sure to set aside time for reading to learn about a wide range of disciplines and their approach. Oppong also emphasizes that learning is a process. This is why learning itself requires the discipline of PDCA.

2) Act as one of the team

Think of yourself as a specialized type of anthropologist where you are a guest observing your team’s culture, only assisting in the problem solving process. Jane Goodall considered herself one of the chimpanzees as she made her observations. In using this approach, you can mitigate the power inequalities that exist in the hierarchical structure of your organization and begin to build trust. You want your team members to see you as an equal.

3) Cultivate self-awareness

Through interactions with team members, you can practice modeling the skills needed for creating and sustaining a problem solving culture. You can demonstrate your capability to select and define critical business problems, use a standard problem solving process, think in terms of "value streams", communicate through humble inquiry, and learn with deep curiosity. You can model what it looks like to practice self-awareness through disciplined reflection.

Observe, Observe, Observe… Reflect, Reflect, Reflect

To integrate what I call the “First Principles of Extraordinary Organizational Performance” into your 7th habit, I recommend carving out short chunks of time and focus on forming just two critical daily habits:

  • Go visit your value creating employees for 30 minutes each day. These are the people working on the manufacturing floor, making contact with customers, or designing products. Practice active listening and humble inquiry to learn how they are thinking. Do not offer your opinion or thoughts! Really, just try to understand how they are thinking.
  • At the end of the day, spend 15 minutes thinking and reflecting. Summarize what you learned and what you expect to do tomorrow. Write it down.

Then, manage your own learning with PDCA learning cycles. At the end of the week capture what you learned and create a new plan for the next week. You may want to list specific questions to answer. Use your first month to grasp your current situation. Learn about yourself, your habits, and your organization through active observation, dialogue, practice, and reflection. Think of your organization as a growing brain that is emerging new patterns.

After the first month, create a plan for taking on just one business problem. Define a gap at one delivery point to the customer, engage the value stream owner of that delivery, and deploy the problem to the owner and the value stream team. Explain the PDCA problem solving process to the team and ask your team to help keep this process going.

As you start to help team members solve problems more systematically, you will see people come alive. In my experience, I’ve seen so many individuals move closer to their “flow state”, highly engaged in solving problems, because they know they are continuously building new problem solving skills with greater challenges. This is how you develop a highly engaged team. You will also observe more respectful communication, people will use dialogue to try to understand each other better, and you’ll see less finger-pointing and more cooperation. You will also see behavior patterns emerge and organic performance growth take place. Other people in the organization will observe this first team's excitement and enhanced performance and will want to experience the same thing.

As for you personally? I predict that you will experience a renewed sense of purpose as a leader. You may notice that you are more in tune with the problems, people, and learning of your organization. Although you will see some inevitable organic growth, you should attempt to carefully manage the next set of business problems to solve so that you develop the right habits in a logical way. You always want to strike a balance between organic growth due to problem solving and managed growth. This will mean working in two different worlds at the same time, at least for a while. Finally, I predict you will find that you are able to measure significant performance improvements in delivery with each team empowered to close their gaps.

Repeatedly Circle Back to Your Most Important Goals

This is important. As you work to instill a culture of problem solving, don’t try to change what you and your organization currently have in motion by way of imposing new initiatives(solutions). Your regular work should continue on as normal. Remember, the “old world” will of course still exist, so you will need to maintain some of your old habits while you are developing new ones. Again, while this work is happening, you just want to run small experiments. First, with you and your personal habits, and then, with one small team that has begun more effective problem solving. Each month, decide what to do next based on what your team is working on, what they are learning, and how they are learning.

As you continue on, look for your next opportunities to develop team members tied to real business problems. Let the team’s learning around problem solving grow naturally. You will be surprised and thrilled at how enthusiasm takes hold. For some teams, it doesn’t take long to move fairly quickly into the new problem-solving culture.

I wish you much success on your transformation journey.

Did you appreciate what you read here? This is the third article in a three article series. Read the first two articles: "The Modern Leader Creates the Conditions for a Problem Solving Culture" and "The 'First Principles' of Extraordinary Organizational Performance." And for a deeper dive on the new role of the leader and what it means to create a problem-solving culture, check out my book, Transforming Leader Paradigms.

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