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Engaging Senior Leaders (Help Them Help You)


Back in March I attended the World Lean Six Sigma Conference in San Antonio, TX. In nearly every session I attended, speakers mentioned the importance of engaging senior leaders. At lunch the second day, as we finished our salads, I asked the person seated next to me about his takeaways from the conference -- what had stuck out to him the most. He said, "After all this time, with all the case studies and success stories out there, I can't believe people are still talking about how to engage senior leaders in continuous improvement."

His words stuck with me.

My first experience with continuous improvement was in the late 1990's. I had finished graduate school and was working on my thesis while working at a small manufacturing company. We made big equipment and had suffered some big losses on projects. A lean consultant, who had worked with a sister-company, was invited to assess our plant. He found evidence typical of a company at the beginning of a lean journey, such as unnecessary processing and lack of visual management. Add to the list: unorganized work areas, absence of pull systems, and poor inventory control. But his most important and basic advice: don't start this process without full senior management engagement.

As is typical, our management team saw the dollar signs -- the potential savings the consultant claimed in his presentation. But they missed the part where they had to be involved, never mind the idea of engaged. We ran events, documented processes. Then we hit major roadblocks -- and resistance -- in purchasing, sales and engineering. Managers didn't understand why we were meddling in their areas. To them, lean was for the shop floor. With some research and number crunching, we established a case for process re-engineering throughout the company. The numbers sold the concept, but getting beyond "check the box" participation was a challenge. I left the company for another opportunity right about the time both the lean and process re-engineering projects were coming to a standstill.

Twenty years later and senior leader engagement is still an issue -- enough to be a consistent theme at a practitioner conference.

We know that change begins with senior leader engagement. Why is it still an issue?

1.  Senior leaders may think they are engaged.

After all, a lean practitioner is on staff and has a budget for activities. There may even be a strategic initiative assigned to operations or manufacturing for cost savings or lead time reduction. Managers listen to updates at the strategy meeting every month. They might even read about projects in the company newsletter or online sharing site. If all that isn't a show of support, then what is? Staying abreast of activities has been "enough" for other initiatives; this shouldn't be any different. Suggesting managers are not engaged can sound like an insult to them, given their perspective.

How you define engaged can differ from how others do.  Changes in needs and expectations may also not be clearly communicated or fully understood.  It is also possible that the list of options for engagement is short, and therefore, success is difficult.

2. Senior leaders are more separated from the people.

It's not intentional -- but it happens as leaders promote within the organization. I remember a situation where employees complained that they never saw our VP of Manufacturing walk the floor anymore. There was a time when he was able to get out on the floor at least once a week. With growth, expansion, more locations and management layers, it was no longer possible. His office was moved from the plant to the executive suite. People missed seeing him even if they'd never spoken to him directly.

I've worked with leadership teams who've expressed the best of intentions for showing up to support employees at events and report-outs, but get pulled away by other priorities -- or delayed back-to-back meetings. In some cases, they've been advised not to show up late as a courtesy to employees who may not be comfortable presenting in front of a group. Rather than disrespect the teams with their lateness, they choose to not attend at all.

3. Senior executives are human.

Not all managers have had the experience of leading continuous improvement projects. It can be intimidating to be "in charge" and "uneducated" at the same time. The argument, of course, is that managers can come to the sessions to learn, but that's harder than it sounds. And by the end of the workweek, after long days of meetings and decisions, fatigue sets in. None of us are at our best when we're tired from a long week.
I sat in on a CI event report out that our VP of Operations showed up for.  3 pm on a Friday.  Three teams presented, each allotted 20 minutes. By 5 minutes into the second team's presentation, he was having a difficult time keeping his eyes open. He excused himself before the third presentation.

The news spread across the plant. People made up that his sleepiness was a lack of interest -- and proof that he wasn't into this "lean stuff." I learned later that he had flown in to town that morning after a week on the road. He hadn't planned to be in the office, but had come in to attend an employee's retirement lunch. The report-out was the only other meeting on his calendar. He didn't realize how exhausted he was until he sat down for 40 minutes in a warm, crowded room.

Like it or not, managers are human, too. They get tired, they feel vulnerable, and sometimes life gets in the way of their best intentions.

Still, change initiatives get more traction when senior leaders are engaged.  What can you do?

1. Be clear about expectations -- stated and unstated. And support them with structure.

What do you think "senior leader engagement" looks like? Are there specific, stated expectations for executives or other managers for supporting CI events -- or are they left on their own to decide if, how, and when? Are you holding managers accountable for expectations that are fuzzy or unstated? Have expectations changed as continuous improvement has become ingrained in your culture?

People are destined to fail to meet unstated expectations. It's no different from expecting my husband to take out the garbage if I haven't asked him to -- or haven't set the expectation that taking the garbage out is his responsibility. The "structure" of the garbage pick-up each week on Thursday morning ensures the garbage and recycling are removed at least once a week.

Goals are a good structure for manager engagement. Work with the manager to set a realistically high goal for engaging in CI events. Help the manager to achieve the goal -- and then celebrate their success with them.

2. Use technology creatively.

Showing up in person is preferred, of course, but virtual presence can be as impacting -- and more practical. We have lots of options for connecting virtually. Use phone & video technology to let managers be "present" for an event without having to be physically on site. Ask a manager to shoot a quick video you can show to the team. Videotape the team doing their work. Set up 1:1 phone calls between managers and team members. Use "internal" social media to share photos and progress. The possibilities are endless.

At the conference, I heard about a company that videotapes the before and after of each project and posts the video on their SharePoint site. Anyone in the company can watch (across the globe) and leave questions or comments for the team. For each event, senior managers and executives are provided cards, one for each team member, and hand-write thank you notes. Not every manager or executive writes a card for every event -- they spread the work around through three levels of management. The employees appreciate the personal notes -- and managers get a simple way to engage that is practical and purposeful.

3. Leverage executive summaries.

In the movie, The Devil Wears Prada, there is a scene where Miranda Priestly (played by Meryl Streep) personally welcomes every guest for a prestigious fashion event. In the movie, she has two assistants who learn the photos and backgrounds of everyone invited. The assistants feed the information to Priestly as the guests approach her. In this way, Priestly seems to personally know (and care) about every guest.

Executive summaries work much the same way. Besides information about the project scope, you can give details about team members. This information (with photos, if possible), can help executives connect with team members more personally, whether the manager is there in person or virtually. The executive summary can also be a teaching tool. You can include information about the tools the team is using -- or any information you think might be helpful.  After the event, ask managers what information was most helpful to them. Your efforts to help them be successful will be noticed.

"Full senior management engagement" looks different at every company, and it evolves over time. I'd amend that lean consultant's advice: don't start this process without full senior management engagement. That means defining expectations, setting up structure and measures, and brainstorming ideas.

As a change leader, whether getting started or well into continuous improvement as a way of life, you have a role in your senior managers success. Above all, don't assume they know what is needed or expected, nor that they are uninterested. Instead, give the benefit of the doubt -- and then be a good partner.  Work with them to find options that bring out their best.  Design an alliance that meets both your needs and gets the job done. Help them help you.


Time for a New Paradigm
Perkins Field

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Tuesday, 02 June 2020