Superhero Process Improvement? The Five Essential Qualities of Leadership

Dennis Narlock

Whether newly trained in a continuous improvement methodology or a seasoned professional the success of your team depends on how you approach your leadership role, writes contributor Dennis Narlock. It’s important to remember that continuous improvement is something that you do WITH people, not something that you do TO them. Here are the five qualities you need.

Process improvement has been around for a long time; the name and methodologies have changed either through assimilation or reinvention. However, whatever banner your process improvement program flies under, you can expect one constant: the challenge of delivering your results.

There are many different reasons why an improvement team might fail to deliver expected results, but the determining factor, in my opinion, is the approach used by the person leading the team. The leader of an improvement team has many responsibilities including keeping the team motivated, on task and ultimately delivering positive results. What the leader is not responsible for is accomplishing all that they have been charged with by themselves.

Think that your role as leader of process improvement involves being a super hero? Think again!

Whether newly trained in a continuous improvement methodology or a seasoned professional the success of your team depends on how you approach your leadership role. While there have been countless books, seminars, webinars etc. on team leadership, success depends on the leader’s ability to create an environment where their team can flourish and achieve success. From my personal experience there are five things to remember when leading teams focused on delivering operational excellence. They are: Perspective, Respect, Humility, Active Listening, and avoiding the "Last Place" syndrome.

Quality #1: Perspective

As an improvement team leader it is imperative to identify the ideas and facts behind your perspective at the onset of an event or project – these are the ideas and facts known to you regarding a specific location, situation, process, person or team. When coalesced these ideas and facts will form the viewpoint that you adopt prior to, during and following the completion of an improvement event or project. It is possible for your perspective to change based on new facts or ideas which were unavailable or unrecognized when the earlier perspective was formed.

Then take it a step further and ask yourself "Does my team have the same perspective?" If you cannot honestly answer that question with a resounding "Yes"; then you are missing some key facts and ideas around the task that has been assigned your team. Here are a few tips to ensure that you maintain the proper perspective as a Green, Black or Master Black belt leading an improvement team.

  • Remember that it is a team effort and requires collaboration. Continuous improvement is something that you do WITH people, not something that you do TO people.
  • Maintain an open mind about the process being evaluated, the people operating in the process and your team members.
  • Ask questions, more specifically ask open ended questions that lead to a sharing of knowledge. This will sow the seeds for successful brainstorming sessions down the road. A second goal of asking questions is to gather additional facts and ideas which you will use to validate and/or adjust your perspective.
  • Facilitate and guide your team towards achieving the objective. Leadership is not about doing the tasks for them; it is about developing their process knowledge and leadership skills.

Quality #2: Respect

As an outsider to the process you will see opportunity for improvement that has been missed by those working within the current process. What will not be as readily apparent to you will be all of the improvements that have already been made to an existing process. Those people that have been with the organization have a vested interest in that organization and its continued success. In some cases they were part of the group who initially founded the organization and have helped it grow into its current structure and market position. While the processes they created may not be the most efficient in your eyes, remember all of the blood, sweat and tears that has gone into creating them. They will be understandably proud of their accomplishments and appearing on scene as a superhero to save them from their wasteful process will establish a barrier between yourself and those who live and operate in the process everyday. When you look in the mirror you will see yourself as a hero, they will see you as the villain. This reputation will become more and more engrained in your colleagues eyes the longer you operate in this manner, ensuring that you will be fighting and uphill battle with each subsequent process that you try to improve.

Some of the negative consequences of this approach to continuous improvement are:

  • Information Quality
  • Information Quantity
  • Data Integrity
  • Improvement Implementation
  • Improvement Sustainment
  • Continuous Improvement Program Viability
  • Personal Growth and Advancement

Quality #3: Humility

While many would prefer a leader who is humble enough to recognize the potential in their colleagues, peers and subordinates; there is also as desire to have a leader who is confident and strong and conveys an ability to truly ‘lead’ an organization to success. In the case of a person who is leading an improvement team, the humility that is important is in reference to terminology, tools and skills.

As an improvement team leader your approach should be such that when you communicate with your team you are utilizing terminology, tools, and explanations in such a manner that they can clearly understand what is being stated.

  • Terminology – Every profession has its own unique language that sets it apart from other professions. Continuous improvement is no different. The words and phrases used in Lean, Six Sigma, Theory of Constraints, TRIZ, etc. have means that are unique to the process improvement environment. Every Green and Black belt knows this to be true based on the number of times that they have been required to explain that their ‘belt’ referred to a level of process improvement training and not to a new martial arts program that was being started by the organization.

An example from my personal experiences occurred while I was learning to use Minitab for statistical analysis. I was having some difficulty in transferring the data from Microsoft Excel into Minitab when my Master Black belt showed me how to concatenate the data so that it would be easier and much faster to load the data into Minitab. I was very excited by what I had learned and was quick to begin using "Concatenate" while talking with my team regarding the project that we were working on. I was also a little dumbfounded the next day when only half my team members showed up again for our meeting. I learned a lesson that day not just in communication, but in humility as I worked to recruit additional team members for the vacancies that I had created. Be confident and knowledgeable enough to lead your team without alienating them by acting like you are above them based on your personal knowledge, terminology and skills.

Quality #4: Active Listening

Learning to interpret and understand non-verbal communications, seeking and achieving clarification of what you heard and engaging in an exchange of information are the foundation of active listening. It means you hear more than what another person or group of people is saying verbally.

While you may feel that your training and/or experience with process improvement establishes you as the expert, it does not mean that you are a subject matter expert in the process that is being evaluated and improved. Those people who live and operate within that process on a daily basis, along with the managers who have supervised the process are the SME’s. If you do not hear what is being communicated and seek to ensure that you understand the implications of what is being said and not said you are likely to make a mistake in evaluating the process. This means that any improvement which is made will not have been built on a solid foundation and could ultimately lead to an improved process that is worse than the one you started with on day one of your event/project.

When your situation is such that you are a new hire or an external consultant working with an organization for the first time it is imperative that you engage in active listening. The people that you will be working with not only have more in-depth knowledge regarding the process or processes being evaluated, they also possess a lot of valuable information regarding the organization. Their experience and longevity will be extremely valuable and in most cases they are willing to share all that they know with you, provided that you take the time to listen to what they have to say.

The following is a partial list of some methods that you can use to engage in active listening with your team members.

  • Repeat back what you hear in a conversation. It is important to remember that you do not need to repeat what was said to you word for word. Instead look to summarize it in terms that you are comfortable with in conversation.
  • Pay attention to the non-verbal as well as the verbal communication. Studies have shown that the greatest percentage of information is communicated using non-verbal means.
  • Start each meeting with a short review of the team charter and goals, what has been accomplished to date and what the objectives are for the meeting. This gets everyone on the same page with a solid baseline moving forward.
  • Understand cultural differences. Whether the differences derive from a specific industry or they are based on geographic location, it is essential to understand the nuances of communicating in different cultural environments. Do the research using any number of websites available.

In addition I would encourage you to evaluate your listening style; one method available for this is "Learning to Listen" from the HRDQ Research & Development Team. ( Take the time to evaluate your listening skills, develop a plan to improve on them, as needed, to ensure that you are maximizing your communications as a process improvement team leader.

Quality #5: "Last Place"

Each of us has been somewhere else before starting our current role. It may have been another position within the same organization; or it could be the same position with additional responsibilities that are a result of recent training (i.e. Lean Six Sigma Green Belt). We may be changing from one region of the world to another, changing organizations, career paths or simply starting our careers following school. As you begin to lead your process improvement team it is imperative that your references to your "Last Place" are limited to those instances when they will truly add value to the subject matter being discussed/applied. Continual references to how your last place operated will have a negative effect on your relationship with your colleagues and with your team members. No one that I have ever meet enjoys continually hearing about how your last organization accomplished value stream mapping, 5S, barrier removal, presentations, training, etc. They want to have the discussion focused on the organization of which they are all members. The focus needs to be on the here and now with a smattering of historical experiences used for emphasis, benchmarking, case studies, etc. Again, the key is a smattering such that when you refer to a previous experience, everyone you’re a communicating with continues to listen vice tuning you out.

Working in an office of professionals it was interesting to watch as a new mid-level manager began work with the organization. In less than a week, this person’s continual reference to their last organization had resulted in significant change within the office.

  • Subordinates began to complete this person’s sentence when they would start out with "When I was at__________ we would do….."
  • Some members of the office would keep tic marks on a white board tracking how often their new manager made a "Last Place" reference.
  • Members of the office would get up to leave for a meeting or appointment that may or may not exist.
  • Information flow upstream to the manager decreased on a daily basis as more often than not a subordinate would avoid speaking with them simply to avoid another story about the managers "last place."

For many of us we have had great experiences in other positions and organizations; hold on to them for what they are and what they represent. However, remember as you move forward that you are in your current position and/or current organization for a reason, use references to your "last place" sparingly as a means of emphasis or to covey clarity on a difficult subject. Always conclude the reference by bringing it back to the current situation and as time moves on develop new experiences from your current position/organization to replace those from the "last place."

Process Improvement is an exciting time for many people within an organization; we have new knowledge and are energized to tackle the challenges facing our organization. We want to demonstrate our abilities and reward the leadership decision that resulted in our training. However, for others within the organization the process of changing will be difficult, their workplace will be going through upheaval and they may experience frustration in their day-to-day efforts. The process improvement experts are an easy target for these frustrations and need to be mindful of how their approach to their supervisors, peers and colleagues will affect the organizations overall goals. Remembering to maintain perspective, respect those whom you are interacting with, demonstrating humility, engaging in active listening and limiting "Last Place" references will go along way to a successful outcome from leading your first improvement team as a newly trained Green or Black Belt.