It has been a little over a year since I took the role as Master Black Belt (essentially a continuous improvement manager) for a division in my company. In this function, I am responsible for setting the strategy for Performance Excellence in our division and ensuring successful execution and results. I lead a small team of CI Black Belts and Practitioners as well a network of site-based performance excellence leaders. Together we support our division’s operations sites in building a sustainable culture of engaging everyone in problem-solving and continuous improvement.
My prior management experience was limited to my time as a Quality Engineering assistant manager at Toyota. This new role represented a broader scope and responsibilities, and I had a steep learning curve ahead of me. I believe that becoming an effective leader requires reflecting back on one’s performance and learning from both successes and mistakes.
As I think back, I see several main lessons from this past year that may be helpful to others who are starting similar roles and perhaps more experienced managers as well.
Lesson #1: Identify and focus on your “must-do, cannot fail” priorities
One of the tailwinds that benefitted me starting my role was that my leadership was very clear on the direction and expectations. However, early on I made the mistake of diluting my team’s focus by becoming involved in some activities that were not completely aligned with our objectives. There were a myriad of opportunities and requests for support that came our way. I wanted to help, but I first should have vetted them with a more critical eye and been more strategic about narrowing our focus first on our “must-do, cannot fail” priorities.
Fortunately, we had a regular process for measuring, reviewing, and responding to results. Having such a process enabled me to see and respond to the slow progress we were making toward our key objectives. It was important that I take ownership of these results. After all, as the leader I was the one who was responsible for setting the priorities for my team. The problem was not in the execution – it was in the strategy. I explained to my team that we needed to take a more critical look at what we were working on and see where we needed to pivot to higher impact activities.
Together, we identified what activities we could eliminate and brainstormed on how we could shift our focus to close the performance gaps. My team stepped up and we made nearly a full recovery by the end of the year. I was left with an important lesson to apply moving forward. This year we have hit the ground running executing first on our absolutely essential activities.
Key takeaways – Ensure that you know what your ‘must-do, cannot fail’ priorities are. Focus your resources heavily on attacking these first. Regularly review and respond to performance, and know when to react and pivot your focus.
Lesson #2: Know when to step back and give your team ownership
I have extensive understanding of the roles of my team members because I had once performed them. While this was of benefit, it also carried with it the risk of becoming too involved with their responsibilities and work. It wasn’t that I did not trust my team members to deliver results – I knew they all were highly-skilled and capable professionals. Rather, it was because their activities fell within my comfort zone of previous experience.
I became aware of this tendency of mine when I asked one of my team members how I could improve as a manager. He told me that I tend to get too involved in the tactical aspects. What he needed from me was to set the high level direction and allow him to determine how to execute. I took his feedback and resolved to do a better job of not being so involved in the detail of my team’s activities. I made a more deliberate effort ensure the overall objective was understood and then allow my team to figure out how to get it done. However, one must not swing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction and take a completely hands-off approach. We have a cadence for providing regular progress updates, and I remind my team to not hesitate to reach out to me should they get stuck.
My team responds well to this approach and consistently deliver the needed results. I have also come to the humbling realization that excessive involvement on my part can actually negatively impact the outcome. This is still an area that I am trying to grow as my default is to want a wide span of control. My team members help hold me accountable.
One of the areas where I need to develop further is identifying where I can assign someone on my team responsibility for higher level, more critical initiatives. This provides a development opportunity for them provided I ensure they have the support and skills needed to execute. Careful thought needs to be put into the selection of these activities as they carry higher risk due to their criticality, but where it is appropriate there is much to be gained in using these as opportunities to develop your team member’s capabilities.
Key takeaways – Empower your team members by allowing them autonomy in completing assignments. Let them know to come to you for support or to help remove obstacles as needed. Incorporate regular progress reviews to ensure they are on the right track. Look for where you can provide them with more challenging assignments for their development.
Lesson #3: Beware of becoming too comfortable in your role
After about six months into the job, I began to feel much more comfortable with my responsibilities. Everything began to operate as a well-oiled machine. My team and I were functioning well together and the results were heading in the right direction.
This was interrupted by the COVID-19 crisis. Our business, like many others, was challenged both externally by a declining retail market and internally due to the impact on staffing and resources. My team became limited in our ability to ‘go to the gemba’ and provide on-site support due to travel restrictions. Using COVID-19 as an excuse was not an option, however. It was imperative that we change our mode of operations if we were going to continue to be effective in our continuous improvement efforts and help our business respond to the current challenges.
This is where I leveraged the collective brainpower of of my team. Four minds coming up with ideas was exponential better than one, and besides – they were often the ones closest to the process and therefore most knowledgeable. “What are some ideas on how we might solve this?” was a question I tried to use often. Together, we came up with the answers to meet the challenges we faced.
Our response included realigning our support responsibilities to adjust to reduced resources. Since we could not visit sites, we established a more regular cadence for touching base and coaching the site continuous improvement leaders. We began using a software called Mural to successfully facilitate remote kaizen events. Due to business conditions, we coached the sites to focus their projects nearly exclusively on delivering cost savings as well as provided them with better analysis tools for identifying these opportunities. With more bandwidth due to not traveling, we used available time to take a critical look at our own tools and processes to streamline and find ways to improve them and/or create new ones. You can learn more about how we adapted and responded to these challenges here.
While none of us would have wanted the COVID crisis, it did have the benefit of disrupting me out of maintenance mode into new ways of thinking and innovative action. As continuous improvement leaders, it is critical that we remember there are two types of improvement – incremental and breakthrough. The former carries less risk but the latter brings the potential for a higher impact. Consider feeling ‘comfortable’ in your role to be a warning sign of slipping into mediocrity, and take action to disrupt this by challenging the status quo.
Key takeaways – Beware of maintenance mode. Challenge the status quo and look for where you can raise the bar. Respond to changing circumstances by finding ways to adapt your processes. Look not just for incremental but also for innovative improvements.
In conclusion, if I had one piece of advice to give to myself and others it would be to be proactive and deliberate about reflecting on your performance and where you can improve. I still have a lot to learn, but I know that becoming an effective leader is a journey and not a destination. Be relentless in your pursuit of continuous growth.