Are You Optimizing the Potential of Your Organization?

According to Steve Jobs, “Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.”

Throughout my career in Corporate America, whether as a supervisor, manager or vice president, I struggled to understand why almost any position on the organizational chart became a “leadership position.” I watched people in the same department define their importance in the organization based upon the information that they had and did not share. Knowledge was power, directives became the status quo, and everyone knew the rules.

Leadership is not a position. To be recognized as a leader, you must have followers and only those willing to follow your direction will recognize you as a leader.

Ancient Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu said , “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

How does your organization function today? Are decisions made by one person who establishes the goals, timelines, and measures? Do your co-workers offer ideas that would make the process better, more efficient, or more profitable? Did you ever wonder why processes fail, results are less than expected, projects miss deadlines?

How people react to “failures” depends upon their own self-confidence in their position. Let’s be honest, people don’t fail, systems and processes fail, and people try to correct the situation. In my early career experience, people do what they are told to do, nothing more.

Why does this happen? In my view, your team members may not have been trained, perhaps they don’t understand the job description – what it means and what are the limits of their responsibility.  Do they need to call a supervisor or other manager before making their own decision?

The effectiveness of work teams depends on how individuals think, their self-confidence in sharing ideas, their approach to problem solving, the person leading the team, and the “rules” for all team members. I learned valuable lessons the hard way. After six months of being plant manager of the largest personal care manufacturing plant in our corporation worldwide, I became frustrated at the lack of improvement in every aspect of our plant including the quality of food in the cafeteria.

Whatever your performance measures, we were failing.  I talked with my staff, held plant meetings, met with small groups of production workers, and tried to convince them that I was willing to change policies and practices. Nothing happened! I had a trust problem. Everyone in our plant had heard similar messages many times throughout their career. Change would not happen unless I was willing to trust the decisions being made in all areas of the plant including manufacturing.

As a “traditional” plant manager, employees were asked to submit opportunities to improve. This was probably the worst decision that I made –I was reinforcing the lack of trust in our employees. It was time for serious change. We formed teams on every production line. Teams were responsible for quality, productivity and results. Teams could stop a production line for any reason and call a team meeting to address problems.

Productivity and quality increased and supervisors were no longer needed, we trusted the team’s judgment. Mechanics were allowed to spend $5,000 on any project if the result improved quality and productivity and productivity went up and mechanics were more thoughtful of the monies spent. 

Two years later, we were recognized by Industry Week Magazine as one of America’s Ten Best Plants. At times I felt that I was no longer in “control” and then I realized that I was always in control and the employees were sharing their knowledge – they were always capable of improving the operation but were never asked for their suggestions.

To be successful, the word “failure” must be eliminated from the discussion. Just remember that when the outcome is not what was expected, it is an opportunity to learn. Your employees are very capable so engage them.