Process Improvement Is A Leadership Sport by Jason Kilgore

I’ve written over 30 blog posts since I began this blogging journey.  Most of those posts have outlined a step-by-step approach to various aspects of process improvement.  I recently attended our annual leadership conference.  In the hours and days since, I’ve given much thought on the human side of process improvement.  Yes, the skills required to streamline processes are somewhat specialized and impersonal.  However, the softer skills of leadership are even more important.  I’ve been blessed to work with and for some great innovators.  Here are six common themes I see in them.

  1. Persistence:  Constant, steady goals that don’t change with the season.  We admire leaders who set clear targets and push until the objectives have been achieved.  Changing goals flippantly and failing to hold the team accountable creates division, lack of focus, and frustration.  Great leaders set the vision and steer the ship.
  2. Pragmatism:  Everyone appreciates a pragmatic approach to solving problems.  Great leaders think and speak in terms their teams understand.  While getting the results may require complex planning and execution, a great leader knows how to break down the issues, communicate effectively, and not overwhelm the team with extraneous minutia.
  3. Persuasion:  Sometimes, the team needs to be persuaded.  Persuasion (not to be confused with coercion) is the ability of the leader to inspire his or her team to willingly perform the work to be done.  Process improvement is tough.  Change requires courage.  The power of persuasion is an valuable tool in ensuring great results.
  4. Personality:  People respond to people they like.  Many times, process improvement requires leading people who get discouraged.  As such, being able encourage the team is critical to keep the team moving forward when the project gets tough and the eventual success is in question.
  5. Personal integrity:  The leader’s personal integrity bonds the team around a common purpose.  An effective leader is transparent, up-front, and honest with the team.  Kind, yet clear – the leader is able to prevent dissention among the team by treating team members fairly, listening to their ideas, and giving each the opportunity to perform optimally.
  6. Patience:  Get it done fast, but get it done right.  Patience is the ability to balance results-orientation and time for thinking it through.  We tend to swing between two extremes:  hurriedness and analysis.  Finding the sweet spot somewhere in the middle is the key getting results expeditiously and getting the results desired.

There have been a million books written on leadership.  All of them likely have some good information.  But there is not a book that can replace watching the great leaders in our own lives, learning from them, making our own mistakes, and improving our personal leadership style.

Liberal Timelines and Our Failure to Meet Them

In retrospect, the question was probably rhetorical. A colleague asked me, “Why do we under-promise and then under-deliver?”  Despite my less-than-coherent answer, the question is worthy of some thought.

The question restated is, “Why do we set liberal timelines and then fail to deliver results?” The poignancy of the question should not be lost in its sarcasm.  First, why are we overly risk-averse when it comes to making commitments?   And secondly, given the fact that we under-committed, why do we STILL fail to deliver the results on time?  Logically, hedging on a timeline would give ample opportunity to deliver on time.  So, when both happen (over-estimating and failing to deliver), there exists a perfect storm of futility.  Why?

Now that I have had time to reflect, I may have better answers.

  1. Inexperience – If we do not know the amount of work involved in completing the individual tasks of a project, there is a 50-50 chance we will overshoot the project timing.  Solution:  Always identify tasks and estimate the workload as a team.  Team buy-in to the project’s deliverables creates a solid foundation from which to build the project plan.
  2. Pulling a fast one – Be honest-why would we put ourselves under the gun to commit to a timeline if we don’t have to?  In the absence of a hard deadline, we tend to give ourselves an excessive amount of time to accomplish the goal.  This lackadaisical attitude in committing to the project carries over into our ability to execute the project.  Lazy is as lazy does.   Solution:  If the project is important enough to take on, put together a solid timeline and execute the project.  If not, don’t bother.
  3. Poor performance – Sad but true.  Even the best timelines require a project manager who can keep the team on task, mitigate risks, and manage resources.  If the project owner will not own the project, the project will fail.  Successful projects have an accountability structure that expects projects be on time and on budget.  Who’s to blame if poor performance continues to exist?  {Insert definition of insanity here.} Solution: As the leader, hold yourself accountable to keep the project manager accountable.

As leaders and stakeholders, our businesses depend on getting results.  In order to escape the hamster wheel of ineffectiveness, we must determine the root cause and take action to correct.  Give your team the opportunity to succeed by committing to critical projects and delivering the results.

Learning from Verizon Fios – The Parable of Getting Results

We recently decided to switch our cable, internet, and phone to Verizon Fios. I could add this story to Chapter 3 of The Elegant Process  – another example of how a company’s mistakes can cost them a lot of money.  But my problem with Verizon Fios is more of a parable about the challenges in getting results.   And, getting results is what process improvement is all about.

Like 99.99% of residential customers switching carriers, we wanted to keep our old phone number.  But, when Verizon installed the new service, they also gave us a new phone number – a new phone number that I neither asked for nor wanted. One would think that resolving this problem would be simple, but it has not been so.  I have been on the phone with Verizon’s customer support for no less than 3 hours per week for the last 4 weeks trying to get this problem resolved.  This on-going and as-of-yet-unresolved frustration reminds me of three very important aspects of problem solving.

  1. Communicate the desired future state concisely, consistently, and frequently.   Each time I am on the phone with Verizon’s Fios Customer {lack of} Support, I state the following, “My name is Jason Kilgore and I am calling you today to get my phone number back.”  Then, the back-and-forth problem solving commences.  It is important to restate the goal so that no one loses sight of what must be accomplished.
  2. Ensure everyone knows what they are supposed to do next.  Re-activating a phone number that has been inactivated requires a ton of action items.  So, before concluding each call, I make it a point to restate what is supposed to happen next, who is responsible, and when it is to be completed – just so we are all on the same page.  In any productive work group, meeting, or planning session, a final review of the action items ensures everyone understands the game plan and reinforces personal accountability.
  3. Follow up on key deliverables as they come due. According to Verizon, each step will be completed in the next 24-48 hours.  So, sometime within the next 24-48 hours, I call them back to document the progress of the project.  And, it’s a good thing I do.  Verizon and I have worked through issues including data entry errors and lack of a clear process for recovering inactivated numbers.  None of these mistakes would have been proactively resolved in a timely manner without my intervention.  Because I am the one who wants my phone number back, I am the one responsible to get it back.  For me to think this problem is Verizon’s problem will only result in my never getting my phone number back.

Thomas Edison was noted for saying, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”  Perhaps, the same is true for problem-solving.  If you are to solve your company’s most pressing issues, it will be less about methods and frameworks and more about your determination to succeed.