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The phone is ringing and you know it is going to be another unhappy customer, the only question is what are they going to complain about? Their product is late, there are defects in what they got, they got the wrong thing, there were too many or not enough. Every time the phone it is a complaint, another fire to be put out, another thing that you need to deal with.
You have already had words with your team and told them that those deliveries that are backed up better get moving. You have told them over and over that they better fix the quality issues and for goodness sake get someone to double check that the quantity of items you are shipping are right. You have been having those one on ones over and over, you have even banged the table to get their attention, yet that phone keeps ringing. The only reason it rings slightly less is because of the customers you have already lost. Everyone needs to just try harder, knuckle down and get it done, eventually the flames will go out. The only question is will that be because, with all your fire-fighting and need to just do things, you have found a way to put them out or that there is nothing left to burn, and the business is done?
I have been lucky in my life to have some really smart mentors who have taught me a lot of things along the way, even when I did not know I was learning them. In my down time I am love photography, I love getting out into big wide-open spaces and capturing the landscape. When my photography mentor said we were off to the botanic gardens I was a little underwhelmed. I was even more underwhelmed when he sat me in front of a flower bed and said OK I want you to site exactly here for 30 minutes and capture at least different 20 images of the flowers from here without moving I wasn't happy. In the first 5 minute or so I captured the obvious stuff and took about 10 images, then it got harder. I had so stop and look. I had to think what I was trying to do, to say in the image other than here's a nice flower. I was stuck. 10 minutes went by and I still did not get anything else. My photography mentor told me in his best Yoda voice, you are looking but not seeing things. Put the camera down and stop thinking like a landscape guy and think about the person who will look at the image, what do they need from your image? What do you want to tell someone about the images? When you are thinking like that only then pick up the camera.
The end result was I didn't quite get 20 different images, but I did get 15, and deleted ever image I made in the 1st 5 minutes when I was just using the same old approach.
How does that remotely apply to your organisation and your situation? It is time to realise that the same thinking that got you here is not going to get you anywhere else other than where you are, it is time to change. To do that you need to stop and think first before you go rushing in and trying to find a solution.
There is an obsession with doing things, you must do things quickly, do not wait just get it done. It is understandable, the flames are lapping at your feet. The problem is all that rushing around is not really helping, you are not taking time to see where the fire is going next. We help leaders stop and stand still. We get them to actually look at the organisation and see what is really happening, where the 1st step needs to be. In a bit to improve the output of a production line we got the production manager to stand and just watch the line, to think about it from the customer viewpoint. Do they want it quickly or do they want it right? If we get it right can we then, gradually, get it quicker? One of the things the manager saw as they stood and just watched was that one operator, who they had praised as being very quick was reworking 40% of what they did. Since they were doing their own rework it was hidden. That dramatically slowed down the line and not every defect was caught. The old solution may have been to go tell the operator off, to stand over them until they got it right. In stead we found a slower machine and asked them to work with that while coaching them on their technique. Within an hour we achieved more output than we had previously at a higher quality level.
My asking the operator about what they found challenging they told us that the pressure to get numbers was causing them to rush. They did not always have the right tools but had to keep going because it was a rush. When we asked what they needed (they have now become our internal customer) they gave a list on 5 simple things that we could do right away that would make a difference. By the time we had implemented item 3 on that list (the same day) we had received feedback from others as well with more suggestions.
We also found that by allowing others to become involved they could see things we could not. They could spot problems that they had known about but were not previously allowed to fix. Now, freed to do so, they were working with each other to help fix those problems and coaching each other on things.
By getting others involved and engaged in this new approach we saw engagement rise in the time. Watching them and encouraging them with their ideas, letting them try things then asking what their next step was if it does not work out was a huge turnaround for this leader. Their job now was to keep feeding the passion of this incredible team they had sparked into life who were not only putting out the fires, they were predicting where they would pop up in advance and solving the problem before it was a problem.
There is a lot of talk about people being averse to change. I do not think that is true; I think they are either averse to having change inflicted on them. Of having no input to it, of being forced to do things they know wont work. Or they are averse to losing control.
The people who tend to be the largest barriers to change however tend to be those in management positions. Those who developed or implemented the thinking or approach got you to this precipice in the first place. For many, having to admit they need to change and take a different approach, that their approach was not correct is hard. To release control is harder still, it is slow, and it can be challenging.
Having leaders release control and get others involved in finding solutions, in admitting that they do not know is, however, the only way to make it happen and worth the efforts to try. That is why we spend a lot of our time with the leadership teams getting them on board and aligned so that they can then get others on board and involved. It's not easy, but it's the very best way of changing things and putting gout those fires.
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