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Developing Leadership Through Tours

By John Knotts Updated on March 1st, 2022

In my last article, we had a great discussion, in our continuing series, regarding Continuous Improvement Development for Leadership and Professionals.

Leadership development is extremely important if you are trying to change or create a new culture in your organization.  Many times, the leadership wants to see culture change, but they really are not sure what the new culture looks like or how to model the proposed change.  This is just as true when you are talking about building a culture of continuous improvement.  If the organization is not very mature when it comes to improvement in general, then this type of culture is hard for leaders to picture.

If your leadership does not know “what” it looks like, then there is a good chance that they will never be able to model the operating styles or behaviors required of this type of culture.  Thus, no matter how much your leaders desire to walk the talk, they just do not know how.

What better way to develop your leadership than by “going to gemba?”  For those non-lean practitioners out there, “going to gemba” loosely means going to where the work is performed.  In this case, we are talking about going to where the type of work you want to model (or not to model) is performed.

What I am talking about is taking a field trip…or better yet, several field trips over time.

Most people have heard of, at some point, benchmarking.  Benchmarking is a formal process of comparing one’s own business processes and performance to industry best practices.  You can also benchmark people who are simply not the best practice – this can show you what not to do.

When developing your leadership, I recommended in the last article, “Field trips to places that can demonstrate their quality activities can also be an effective teaching method and good team building event.”

This article is dedicated to that specific activity.  Not everyone will have places where they can go, depending on where your organization is located, but if you think outside the box, you might be able to come up with some good ideas.

Basically, this is what I propose:

1. As a team or individually (or both), come up with potential locations that your leadership team could visit. These locations can be from the best in the business to the worst in the business – anyone can be a model as long as you know what type of model to expect.  Here in San Antonio, we have a Toyota Tundra Plant that gives tours – you really cannot ask for better than that, as they are the model of continuous improvement.  However, there are many options. Here are a few ideas from San Antonio that I have been involved in:

  • Vehicle or Parts Manufacturing Plants
  • Printing Plants
  • Bottling Factories
  • Central Pharmacies
  • Micro Breweries and Distilleries
  • Amusement Parks
  • Sports Helmet Reconditioning Plants
  • Horse Races
  • Government Services
  • Snack Foods Plants or Bakeries
  • Cattle Ranches and Horse Farms
  • Goodwill Industries
  • Your own suppliers (very enlightening)

2. I will bet that some of those on the list would not have been on your first cut. You really need to think outside the box when coming up with ideas.  Remember, process happens everywhere.  For instance, Fiesta Texas, in San Antonio TX, has very specific processes for getting people on and off rides as quickly as possible and they closely pay attention to key performance indicators (e.g., wait time) when doing so.  All of these companies listed above have examples of Lean and Six Sigma opportunities to learn from.  When you go on the tour, make sure that everyone is looking for these opportunities.

3. Before you go, make sure that everyone going knows what to look out for. Perhaps you can email or meet and discuss ahead of time what to expect and things to watch for.  Some key things to have leaders look for would be examples of one-piece-flow, 5 or 6S, obvious metrics, standard work, visual controls, huddle boards, etc.  Observing how they, or how they do not act as a quality organization can be very powerful.  If everyone goes just to see the place like a regular tourist, you are kind of wasting the trip.

4. After the trip, set aside some time to talk about what everyone saw there. Discuss what was good and bad.  Also, examine what might be applied in your organization.  This can really get leaders to think about the art of the possible.  Seeing it makes the ideas more real.  Just remember, going to some places like Toyota can be a bit daunting to some companies who are extremely immature when it comes to having any quality environment.  Decide what you, as a team, will want to explore in the future in the way of learning and development or in projects to change the way you operate.

Some things to consider before embarking on tours with your leadership team:

  • Do some up-front work to identify potential tour locations before throwing the idea out to leadership. You might want to come up with a few ideas first before getting ideas from the floor.
  • Make sure your leadership has a basic understanding of Lean and Six Sigma. Do not go on tours before getting at least some basic teaching out of the way.  If you do, they will not know what to look for or what they are looking at.
  • Turn the trip into a full event with lunch and a team-building event. Make a half-day (or even full day) out of it.  Not all offsites have to be all work as long as you are focused on something work-related.
  • Consider a written trip report after the event to share what you saw, heard, and felt after the event. There will always be someone that did not get to attend that you will want to share what you learned with.
  • Remember to focus on the good, the bad, and the ugly when taking these tours. You can learn something from every tour if you are watching closely enough for it.

Education and training are not always in books and lectures.  Discussion is a good technique for a lunch and learns but taking a field trip can be much more impactful.  Getting out and seeing what you are thinking and talking about building is very helpful to leaders that have little to no grasp of what it looks like.  If you think outside of the box, this can be a very valuable developmental tool for your leadership along your journey.

Building a Culture of Continuous Improvement is a multi-issue article that will span several months.  Next article, let us look at an often-forgotten part of a continuous improvement culture – engaging partners and suppliers on your journey.

  1. Isaiah Kittel

    March 23, 2022 - 1:10 pm

    This is a great article that really combines both the advantages of benchmarking and Gemba walks, and takes it to a different level with touring other facilities. I agree, sometimes it s hard to impose lean and six sigma strategies without insight into how, especially when creating a culture of continuous improvement. Organizations being able to tour other companies and experience their processes sheds light on new possibilities an organization could adopt. But that’s not without discussion between leaders about what they want to accomplish and what they experienced at another company. Do you think a culture of continuous improvement also comes with the why/ mission of the company itself? If they establish their why as continuously improving and innovating, they’d attract employees with a similar philosophy and create a level of strategic fit as well.

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