What to do when you don’t know the way to go

plot a course for home

plot a course for home by wildwinyan

My 3-year-old is following in his 7-year-old brother’s footsteps and taking an intense interest in Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer.  After a couple years of not having to listen to the theme song ad nauseum, we’re back into the thick of things.

For those who are not familiar with the show, Dora frequently goes on adventures and isn’t certain which way to go.  In those situation, she calls upon her trusty map, which shows her the way.

If only we were all so well prepared.

In business and in life, we all need a map.  Too often, we move without thinking or jump in without looking.  We buy into the paradigm that says we ought to fail fast, but we don’t bother to ask, “Fail at what?”  Failing for the sake of failing isn’t the path to enlightenment, it’s just stupid.  Even if you’re prepared to accept failure – that failure needs to be leading in the direction of some intended destination, meandering as the path may be.  Otherwise, the exercise never ends and nothing is ever learned.  It’s just activity for the sake of activity.

Activity without planning at any level is just folly and entirely wasteful.  Planning is the result of consulting the map  –  we can see the current location, the destination, and the obstacles in between.  Without a destination in mind, and a plan for getting from here to there, all that results is misalignment of goals, fits and starts, lost momentum and, quite frequently, situations where people are more than happy to clear an entire forest just to deliver a toothpick.  The purpose, after all, was to show activity over and above the value of delivering the end product.

The guiding principles of an organization are what the people working within that organization turn to when they don’t know the way to go.  Those principles align people and, even if there is no certain way to go, will at least tell you which way you should not go.  In effect, they become your map.  They let you know where the terrain is flat and clear, or rocky and overgrown, and allows you to see all the other route options to help you adjust course and still reach your destination.

Any organization, regardless of size or complexity, needs to have guiding principles (see the Shingo Model for more elaboration on the impact of guiding principles).  When all else fails, adhering to these principles will offer assurance that people are still operating within the spirit of your organization.

Respect for People is not Respect for Person, just ask Clint Eastwood



On my mind lately is the concept of “Respect for People” that is at the core of Lean and one of the fundamental building blocks of the Shingo Model.

I remember just about 3 years ago, as I was first introduced to Lean via the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership, there was a video in which Bruce Hamilton mentioned that, sometimes, leaders need to tell the late adopters to get with the program.  “Wait a minute…” I thought. “Doesn’t that contradict the need for management to show concern for each of their charges, and guide them to accepting new ways of thinking & doing?”

I’ve carried that thought with me for some time, and as I continue to evolve my understanding of what the Lean school of thought teaches, I’ve come to realize the error of my previous assumption.

What I have finally come to realize is that Respecting People is a focus on People and not necessary any one single individual within the group.  If you are bending over backwards to accommodate each individual person, you are detracting from the ability of the group to survive, as a whole.  It has taken me a long time to come to this realization.

Lean is about systems.  More importantly, it is about how individuals within systems interact.  So, that necessitates an understanding of how the individual becomes a functioning part of a greater whole.  Coupled with that, is the belief that the role of Leaders is to build teams.  In order to lead individuals to become a valued part of the whole, to the benefit of the system for the benefit of the individual (and not the other way around), it is occasionally necessary to kick a person square in the ass.

The difference between most, traditional management we see and useful foot-in-seat-of-pants action is usually one of experience.  A good leader will make you better than what you are, because he or she knows who you need to become as an individual in order to become part of the team.  The leader knows this, not through some education received in a classroom, but through hard experience.  Simply put, the leader has been there before and knows the way, and is able to get you to the same point.  This does not, automatically, necessitate being nice and pleasant and sidestepping difficult, personality issues or simply telling people how wonderful they are.  On occasion, it requires a stiff hand and a stern voice.

While I suppose I could go on describing any number of situations or personal recollections to illustrate my point, I think there’s a perfectly good example already.  In the 1986 film, HeartBreak Ridge, Clint Eastwood plays Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner and just about the toughest SOB to ever walk the planet.  His job is to take the ridiculously inept crew he’s been assigned to and turn then into a proper group of Marines.  While his men certainly don’t like the treatment he gives them, they also certainly come to appreciate it when their performance, as a group, turns around.  Most importantly they appreciate it when the long days of hard training and constant, cranky barbs from “Gunny” have prepared them for battle and helped them to stay alive.

Like the Recon Marines under Sergeant Highway’s command, I can also say that one of the toughest-on-me bosses I’ve ever had (which is very different from the “tough” bosses I’ve had) was also the one I learned the most from.  With that in mind, perhaps it’s time we take a step back and decide if we’re really thinking about respecting people when we talk continuous improvement, or just the person?