“The most important factors for success are patience, a focus on long term rather than short-term results, reinvestment in people, product, and plant, and an unforgiving commitment to quality.”
This is a quote from Robert McCurry, former Executive VP of Toyota Motor Sales. It’s a great quote which captures in broad brushstrokes some of the essential characteristics of successful lean companies: long-term thinking, a focus on developing people, and kaizen. At the same time, to companies struggling with short-term challenges, these words can seem like happy talk. Many of us feel like we need to take action now, ideally not at the cost of the long-term, people or quality but to see results today. This is a delicate balance. We need to think long-term, but act each day with urgency.
This has to begin with leadership. From Jeffrey Liker’s book The Toyota Way:
The biggest crisis a company faces is when the leaders believe there is no crisis or do not feel a passionate sense of urgency to continuously improve the way they work.
FC is an in-house lean manufacturing consultant who coordinates the training and implementation. Lean is new to this organization, with most of the focus being on 5S for the past two years, with a recent interest in the other aspects of lean. A few weeks ago FC asked in an e-mail whether we had a checklist to gauge the sense of urgency of the staff. We don’t have such a checklist.
Although by no means a full checklist on a sense of urgency, at a minimum I would ask the following of FC’s leadership:
- Do we have a clear and articulated vision of “the ideal”?
- Do we have a firm grasp of our current situation based on facts we have confirmed with our own eyes?
- Do we have a sufficiently strong consensus on the problem (the gap between ideal and current state) so that we can begin breaking down this problem into actionable chunks?
Harvard Prof and author John Kotter places creating a sense of urgency as job #1 in a successful transformation in his Why Transformations Fail:
- Establish a sense of urgency
- Form a powerful guiding coalition
- Create a vision
- Communicate the vision
- Empower others to act on the vision
- Plan for and create short-term wins
- Consolidate improvements and sustain
- Institutionalize the new approaches
We could view this as a high-level road map for implementing lean or any other major transformation. “It’s all about the people” and “it’s all about leadership” if we consider that steps 1 – 5 are PLAN in the PDCA cycle, all related to change management and getting the mindset right. Step 6 is the DO or implementation as a pilot, step 7 is the CHECK and 8 is the ACT.
The conventional wisdom is that at least 80% of the leadership team need to be removed safely from their comfort zone. We all strive for comfort, but in the comfort zone there is no sense of urgency. Leaders especially must venture out of this zone in order to lead. Safely, because otherwise they will find themselves in the fear zone and fight their way back to the comfort zone – not a productive use of leadership energy. Organizations that make it through a crisis emerge stronger and it is part of a leader’s role to guide their team deliberately and safely through these fires.
According to Kotter, having a sense of urgency is at the top of the list for success or failure of a transformation effort. Yet a crisis (a gap that triggers a sense of urgency) is a relative thing, a question of how you perceive your circumstance. How do we measure whether we have a necessary sense of urgency?
What do you think? Please share your views and insights on the subject of how to gauge an organization’s sense of urgency.