First, Make a Human Connection

By Jon Miller Updated on May 18th, 2019

A recent conversation with a friend of mine who is a continuous improvement director at a sizable North American corporation yielded some personal insights for him and general ones about being a technical change leader. This story is shared with his permission, in hopes that it will help someone else in a similar situation. Details have been changed to provide anonymity.

My friend, whom we will call Alan, has been at his new job less than a year. Previously he was the Lean leader for a private, mid-sized company. He is now responsible for designing the corporate approach to business excellence and rolling it out across multiple locations as well as various corporate functions.

When he was first hired, there was great enthusiasm. Improvement opportunities were everywhere. He quickly demonstrated his value to the company through his technical prowess at diagnosing their situation and designing Lean systems to implement. But for one reason or another, Alan explained, real change was coming slowly. Alan wondered if his new company was on the way to becoming yet another “Lean failure” statistic. Alan called because he had a solution in mind. His plan was give a presentation the leadership about they needed to do to support Lean. If plan A didn’t work, plan B was to find another job.

Alan didn’t hear himself doing. I asked him to reflect objectively on his words. He was assigning blame to people without looking at the system problems. “The number one reason for lean failure is lack of leadership support.” We hear this all of the time. This is a poor problem statement. It takes the easy way out by assigning a psychological reason i.e. “bad leader” rather than a system reason e.g. “the incentives for leaders are not aligned with Lean behaviors.” Blaming poor leadership is unbecoming of a CI manager or anyone who claims to practice Lean thinking. Alan, was better than that.

After this reset, we clarified the issue and broke down the problem. Did a conversational equivalent of a go see, talking through several point-of-cause stories. We agreed that he was struggling with the soft side. He understood the business problems his leadership team wanted to address with Lean, but not their history or context. He had demonstrated his technical prowess, but had not built the trust with decision makers. He had explained his findings and ideas in sophisticated and clever ways, rather than simple, familiar ones. He had not adapted to his audience, nor they to him. Alan’s experience is a fairly common instance of great science failing to gain acceptance because the scientist and layman fail to first make a human connection.

Despite his weakness, Alan had survived and even thrived in his previous company. He had grown up there and the leadership team understood him. They knew that he was passionate about Lean and gifted at the technical aspects, but needed help in getting his ideas across to people. They provided cover for him. They spent time preparing the groundwork for Alan’s most ambitious efforts. His leadership team was competent at change management. Though unintentional, this limited Alan’s growth. His weakness was only exposed once he took his new and bigger job. His bosses at the previous company saw no reason to stretch Alan by having him take on the soft side when he was so good at delivering the technical side.

Neither Alan nor his new employer did a good job of grasping the current situation when starting out together. Alan didn’t have enough self-awareness to know what he didn’t know. He didn’t suspect how far out of his depth he might be in his new job. He was aware that he had been getting change management help from his leadership team in his previous company, but didn’t grasp its full value. It never occurred to Alan that he might not have the same support, credibility or relationships in his new company. Nor could he know how critical this would be in a large and bureaucratic organization. The company that hired Alan did not know enough about Lean to ask what mix of technical and soft skills their new CI leader needed, or how to effectively mentor and on-board Alan over his first months. These are common system problems when hiring change leaders.

Alan is moving forward with plan C. He will take his leadership team through a reflection process to understand gaps in expectations versus actual in their Lean transformation so far. He will lead a problem-solving exercise and work with them on countermeasures. At the same time, he will be mentored by a senior analyst on his team who has been there for decades at the company. Alan has a new appreciation for soft skills. He has reframed them a set of techniques. He is up for the challenge.

  1. Bob Emiliani

    May 20, 2019 - 8:23 am

    A big part of making a human connection to corporate leaders is to deeply understand executive’s thinking across multiple dimensions: economic, social, political, philosophical, etc. My advice to Alan would be to learn more about this (see https://tinyurl.com/y6vz9kdx) before taking the leadership team through a reflection process — which could easily backfire and leave Alan and his team in bad shape. Soft skills are only one small part of a larger problem to understand his company’s executives.

    • Jon Miller

      May 20, 2019 - 11:51 am

      Hi Bob
      Thanks for your comment. Agree that learning the audience is a key part.

    • Bob Emiliani

      May 20, 2019 - 1:22 pm

      Yes, know the audience better than they know themselves.

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