The Eight Habits of Effective Process Excellence Leaders

A lot is written about process excellence, writes columnist Debashis Sarkar, but one area that has not been covered in much detail is what actually makes a great process excellence leader? It’s not about the tools, he says. Here are the eight habits of effective leaders.

For many of us being a process excellence leader is about mastering the tools and attaining certifications in the domain of six sigma (belts), lean (master), TOC (Jonah) etc. While these skills are required, what makes a successful process excellence leader is demonstrating skills and behaviours beyond the methods. It’s not the technical skills but the adaptive skills that makes a PEX Leader successful.

Here are what I consider to be the eight habits of effective Process Excellence leadership:

Habit #1: Ability to Zoom-in and Zoom-Out

Leaders need the ability to zoom-in and zoom-out: zoom-in to get into the core of an issue and zoom-out to see the larger picture. It’s essential to have this focus so that when looking at a problem (or an opportunity, as I like to call them), to understand the strategic imperatives of business and which processes need to change to make an improvement. You need to be able to quickly see how the details of individual processes connect up with the big-picture of the business. In everything that they do, PEX Leaders need to be system thinkers who see problem solving in the context of the larger business system and how this affects other parts of the business. This not only helps ensure that improvements in one area aren’t negatively affecting another, but also ensures that all process improvement work is supporting the strategic objectives of the business.

Ultimately, as I wrote in an earlier column - How to tell if you're a process centric organization - leaders of process excellence should be able ascertain how the strategic and tactical efforts in process improvement will impact the overall performance of the company. A key deliverable of a PEX Leader is to script a holistic improvement roadmap for the next couple of years that enables a company to achieve its strategic vision.

Leaders must be able to zoom in and out

Habit #2: Ability to engage

Process improvement is as much about convincing people to change as it is going around and changing processes. The ability to engage other people, therefore, is essential. Process Excellence Leaders must be able to persuade the CEO and other senior leaders to adopt process excellence practices for business improvement. This is about being able to sell performance-enhancement ideas to leaders based on the explicit & implicit needs of the business, and then being able to support them start-to-finish to catalyze the changes necessary.

The key word here is "catalyze" which is about the business leader owning the deployment while the PEX Leader acts as a coach. Leaders of process improvement need to be comfortable both with C-level executives as well as teams at middle & junior management. Senior leaders look at him as a trusted partner while people at junior and middle management look at him as an inspirational leader who is able to motivate them to adopt process-practices for eliminating some of the deep chronic issues that they could be facing. The PEX Leader should be able to provide visibility to teams on how their efforts impact the strategic objectives of the company.

Habit #3: Ability to manage change

This is about treating a process excellence rollout as a change program and doing everything to make sure it sticks in the firm. It includes getting the organizations’ attention to the process excellence agenda, catalyzing the required sense of urgency and gaining true buy-in by winning over the hearts and minds of people.

The Process Excellence Leader does not keep the people who oppose the process agenda out of his way but proactively gets them to the table to understand their concern and even allows them to find holes in the way he is proposing the deployment. PEX Leaders need to treat those who attack us with respect and engages with them to allay their concerns. We are able to successfully manage a wide-range of behaviours that oppose / raise doubts about the process agenda. One of endeavours of the PEX Leader should be to work with the CEO to build a change-ready company that is able to wade through the changes in the environment.

Habit #4: Ability to understand financials

Process Excellence leaders need to demonstrate to the business the financial value of the work the team is undertaking but also understand how process improvement work affects the financial of the company.

Process Excellence Leaders must understand financials

PEX Leaders need to understand not just basic financial statements but also the relationship between them and the derived ratios. For example, if a cost-income ratio is a key metric tracked by top management in a bank, the PEX Leader works towards finding which processes can improve this ratio.

Conversely, if there are financial measures that top management should be tracking, but aren’t, the PEX Leader should be able to highlight this and argue why a particular measure is important and what impact process improvement will have on the measure.

Habit #5: Ability to Coach

The ability to help others become better is a key skill which PEX Leaders should master. We are in the business of not only improving processes but also helping to improve businesses. A key part of that is ensuring that we are building up capabilities and skills in others in the business. PEX Leaders should be able to coach those in the process improvement team but also those who are not direct reports as well as peers and top management of the firm.

To know more on coaching I would suggest you go through my earlier column: 13 Essentials of Coaching for Process Improvement

Habit #6:Ability to understand customers and spot trends

Ultimately, we’re in business because we have customers. When customers become the centre-stage of a process excellence endeavour the undertaking gains a greater magnitude of importance – everyone in the business can and should have a sense of how their role serves the end customer. A process excellence initiative can die when primarily targeted towards internally focused objectives such as cost cutting, efficiency gains, etc. while a process excellence journey is long lasting when it is designed around customers.

PEX Leaders work towards improving the value delivered to the customer. We must work with other leaders in the company to design a suitable value proposition for the customer and make sure that each part of the business works in tandem to deliver the customer promise. We need to keep an eye on the emerging trends that impact customers and help the CEO to design a business-strategy with the customer at the centre.

Habit #7: Ability to embed capability

The real power of process improvement starts when business units have the skills necessary to make improvements and changes to their role.

Part of our role is to put ourselves out of a job by building capability and embedding required skills within business units so that they can pursue the process improvement efforts for enhancing the performance of the business. This includes making sure that best and brightest employees are involved in process improvement, teams get time to carry out improvement work and they get recognized for accomplishing business outcomes by using the power of process. Excellence in process excellence work needs to be made a criteria for career growth. Each of the business units and functions should have adequate number of change agents in improvement approaches such as Lean, Six Sigma, BPM, Triz, Small Group Activities, JIT etc.

Get your best and brightest involved in process improvement

Habit #8: Ability to guide teams on tools and techniques

A PEX Leader should be adept in the key improvement approaches and should be in a position to guide teams when required. While it helps to have deep knowledge in process improvement practices, you shouldn’t worry if you’re not a master of any of them. What is really required of PEX Leaders is the ability to ask the right questions and understand the technical output of teams. Remember, when the job of a PEX Leader is to engage and provide strategic inputs, it’s fine if the PEX Leader is a bit "tool deficient". You need deep experience in change management.

Do you agree that these are the eight habits essential for PEX Leaders? Is there anything I've left out? Join the discussion by leaving a comment.