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Jeff Liker

Jeff Liker: The Struggle to Inject Passion for Learning into Senior Executives

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Sunday, January 17, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

As one might expect from one of our most admired intellectual leaders of the learning organization movement, Peter Senge asks a penetrating, and in some ways painful question.  All of us who are writing for this lean blog are also lean advisors to organizations in some capacity.  We huff and we puff and we try to reorient the behavior and thinking of the organization to what we think of as the lean ideal.  In fact the one core principle that has brought us all together is that lean is about leadership and daily behavior, not a set of tools and techniques.   If you strip away the tools and techniques like value stream mapping, kanban, cells, and even standardized work what you are left with is a desire to create a learning organization.  Much of our time and effort is spent trying to guide the organization to use the tools in order to change behavior in order to change thinking.  We all have had success doing this in the areas in which we have influence.  That is often in the operations.  Our best students are most often the person put in charge of operations excellence and their reports, as well as operational leaders here and there in the organization.  If this is true than at some point we hit a wall.  The lean group is not getting the resources they need.  A new vice president was brought in from the outside and he loves six sigma and is going to revamp the whole lean initiative to become lean six sigma.  The great model line we created is not being used as a model, but instead the COO wants wall to wall lean with clear measurable results in the next six months so superficial lean is the new game in town.

The root cause of all these problems, ultimately the most frustrating part of our jobs as lean advisors, is what Peter Senge is implying.  When we look deeply at what we are all trying to do it is to generate in the organization a passion for excellence that starts with every individual working toward personal mastery.  How can I become the best I can be at what I need to do for the customer?  Otherwise we get deployment of tools and methods to get results and miss the deeper meaning of learning organization.  We have all been there, more times than we would like to admit, and it is discouraging.  What we want to do is get into the heads of all the leaders and make them want it as much as we want it for them.  We want passion and excitement for personal mastery.  Unfortunately the leaders are themselves under enormous pressures from people they report to, whether it is an even higher-level executive, or a board of directors, or irate share holders who want stock prices to go up and go up fast.  They are also very successful, and very proud people.  So listening to a lean advisor tell them what and how they should think is not very appealing.

If lean has one thing to add to the learning organization it is in fact the tools, methods, and associated thinking of value stream improvement.  When we create a lean system and surface problems there is a force created that drives us to see the problems clearly.  When we teach what Mike Rother calls the “improvement kata” people find a level of achievement beyond what they even think possible.  This is very rewarding and very reinforcing.  That is how we begin to change people, one by one.  Unfortunately the people we most want to change are often out of our reach.  I have seen more successes at the very top level in small and medium sized companies than in large multinationals in engaging the very top level people in the quest for personal mastery.  When the CEO goes as far as to order all the direct reports to personally participate in a one-week kaizen event, even this sheep dipping for one week makes a personal impact on them.  You can see it.  Unfortunately it still only scratches the surface.  So we continue to plod along one step at a time, one leader at the time, at least with the belief that we have something to teach that is very engaging and potentially even life changing.

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