When did Thinking Fall out of Fashion?

In the quest for continuous improvement and the desire for increasing levels of control, coupled with a fundamental lack of development for leaders at all levels, are we eschewing the capabilities of our employees by creating rigid systems of rules that may not be as effective as we once thought and; in a much more concerning way, are controlling away the very creativity that allows organizations to grow and evolve rather than become obsolete?

How often have you been frustrated by blind adherence to processes that assume the worst in everyone.  We see this in everything from Airport security that starts with the assumption that we are all guilty until proven otherwise, to business and government where we have overly restrictive and ultimately expensive purchasing practices.

How many times have you seen policies put in place because one individual, either purposefully, or more likely mistakenly, acted in a way that was not deemed to be in the organization’s best interest, that ended up penalizing everyone in the organization from that day forward.

Wouldn’t we be better off with a Framework or a set of parameters within which to operate that were anchored by a goal or principle, which assumed that people were generally good and well intentioned (i.e. we trusted people), and then dealt with situations that deviated from the expected pattern on an individual basis?  Of course this would also mean that managers would need to manage and to deal with ‘situations’ as they cropped up.  The problem is that in today’s organizations we have removed almost all mentoring and management training, assuming somehow that these skills would be absorbed somewhere along the way (but instead proving the Peter Principle over and over).

How do we get ourselves in this situation?  As organizations grow, they often need to have investors.  Investors, whether VC, Private Equity or Shareholders, all of whom want to protect their investment, seek to reduce risk – that is logical, right?

But they also want to see profits increase – after all they should get a reward for investing their money.

Both of these needs result in controls being put in place that are supposed to a) reduce risk, and b) reduce costs (note: I did not say increase profits – which they would like, but that usually involves some degree of risk).  At the same time these very controls which are put in place also reduce the probability of real profitability gains through quantum improvements or innovation.  Out of these needs have spawned a myriad of Continuous Improvement tools aimed at both reducing variability (risk) and controlling costs.  But these very controls and systems are also an anathema to innovation.

These very forces come at a time when there seems to be an unwillingness to take a hard look in the mirror at not only our own leadership styles, but even more importantly hiring (and firing) decisions.  The behaviours that are required are myriad and complex, and require a willingness from the top to trust the “most important resources of the organization, its people” to do the jobs they were hired to do.  It requires a different management style that desperately needs to be learned in many organizations.  Managers must learn to create compelling visions, delegate effectively, trust in their people, have the tough conversations, and provide support and regular feedback; and most importantly, to encourage their people to act in a manner that is in the best interest of the larger organization.

As a (former) Process Engineer, and Operations Excellence disciple, I know all too well the value and need of rigidly defined processes in specific areas.  There is no doubt that for safety, regulatory, and speed reasons, the process followed by individuals securing seatbelts in a motor vehicle requires a well-defined and controlled process.  However, the process by which we engage our customers, or implement a change into an organization, should be recognised as a creative process, that the right people will read the various inputs and decide on the most effective solution.  I have taken extreme examples, but as referenced in the excellent TED talk by Yves Morieux “How Too Many Rules at Work Keep You from Getting Things Done”. The key is understanding the difference, and understanding where you should be tapping into the intelligence and capabilities of your team to work within the frameworks you have established in pursuit of the shared vision.

I will never forget advice given to me by my first manager, Dave Elliott, on my first day of my first ‘real’ job.  He sat me down and told me to think, and to use my judgement.  Specifically, he said “From now on, I want you to look at every situation, and every decision, and stop and think to yourself, is this the best decision for Ford Motor Co.?  Not is this the best decision for me, or a particular plant, or a division, but, is this the best decision for the company”.  This advice has stayed with me and I still think about it on a daily basis. Sure the company changes, but the perspective doesn’t.  The responsibility was huge, to think of those decisions in the context of the entire company, but he was also saying that he trusted me.  To think in those terms I couldn’t go wrong.  How powerful would it be if every manager gave this advice to their teams and trusted them to behave in this way?  It also meant that not every decision had to go through him, nor did he have to be advised of every issue.  He trusted me to take care of my tasks, and to involve him when it was right for the company.  It meant that if the right thing was to speak directly to a plant manager, or a VP in another decision because going direct was in the best interest of the company that I could do so.  It made me, and his team incredibly effective.

For many managers this concept is scary.   It requires a courage and conviction that few seem to possess (likely because they were never shown how).  Despite all the leadership books and articles that bombard us on a daily basis, few seem to understand how to put this into practice.  There is a funny, but accurate infographic that someone in my network shared recently entitled “The art of leader-SHEEP”.


I think the top line “Create a vision”, “Set the direction”, and “Set boundaries” holds the key to releasing people’s creative power, and in the process becoming a more successful organization.

Step 1) Create a compelling vision – this is not some long statement full of meaningless jargon, but a well-focused rallying cry around which your people can gather.  A statement that people can believe in down in their souls.  While researching this article, I came across the following excellent vision statement ““Our salon will change the way you think about a haircut. Full service comfort, friendly staff, a relaxing atmosphere, and the best prices in town give you an experience that will leave you glowing both inside and out.”  This gives the employees and their customer clear expectations, it tells employees what management feels is important, but gives them room to create that experience in their own way, and in a way that resonates with each customer.  This article by Katherine Arline articulates the value and power of a vision statement as well as some guidelines on how to create an effective one.  A final point on vision statements, they do not just apply to the entire organization, each department should have their own, and these vision statements do not have to be for public consumption, they can be just for your own department.

Step 2) Show the way – not that it does not say ‘tell’ the way.  It is amazing to me how many managers do not understand this yet.  They still believe that if they say what they want, it is enough.  Fact is, it is not, as a leader, you must model the behaviour you want to see.  If you want your team to innovate, then what are you doing to bring now ideas to your team?  How are your actions showing that you value new ideas?  It can be as simple as soliciting ideas for a new restaurant for a team lunch rather than going to the same spot every time.  Your actions as a leader and or a manager speak loudly when you are trying to change or shape behaviour.

Step 3)  Set boundaries – this is where the intelligence, capability, creativity of the team gets unleashed.  Rather than setting hard rules and defined processes, we allow people to think, to creatively problem solve, to develop and implement innovative ideas.  Boundaries can be cost or profit goals, time constraints, and industry targets.  Anything that helps to focus the efforts into the desired direction. But combine boundaries with a compelling vision, and you could be amazed at what will be accomplished.

The boundaries and the vision set the direction and the parameters we want the team to operate within, and the results that we are looking to achieve.  If we do this well, and support innovation (which also means not punishing failure), you create the opportunity for breakthrough results.

In the opening paragraph, I mentioned airport security.  As someone who has travelled extensively, and like many in North America after the events of 9/11, I got very used to increasingly intrusive and arbitrary security measures in our Airports.  I just assumed that this was the price of safety.  Unfortunately, time has shown again and again that these measures are easy to defeat, and offer, at best, a vail of security.  Which could be worse than little security, we travel assuming that these measures are protecting us.  To me, and this is not meant as a slight to anyone who works airport security, what I see are low paid, poorly trained individuals in largely menial jobs with rigid rules and strict processes.  I, like most of you, accepted these as a necessary evil until it was pointed out to me that there was a better way.   I didn’t even question the process when I saw a poor woman with a very expensive bottle of perfume arguing with security – the bottle clearly had less than an ounce of liquid remaining, however the container was capable of holding 5 ounces (2 more than was allowed).  In retrospect – the woman clearly was not a threat – the volume of liquid was permissible, what would the harm had been if the security person had been able to make a judgement call and allow the woman to travel with, what was clearly to her, a necessary item.

It was further explained to me that the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, arguably an airport that has the highest need for concern for terrorist threats, and therefore the highest need for effective security, takes a very different approach.  Instead of treating every person who enters the airport as a terrorist until proven otherwise, a rather apt description this individual used, in Tel Aviv there are rings of security manned unobtrusively by highly trained security individuals who engage passengers in what may seem like idle chatter, looking for signs, behaviour, ‘tells’ that alert them to pay attention to certain individuals.  Most people are oblivious of what is happening, and even those who have been identified, probably do not have any idea until security tightens around them.  If you are interested in learning more, I found this article to be very interesting.  The conclusion I was presented with was this:  If you train individuals properly and give them clear goals (stop terrorists from boarding the plane) and rely on their training and intelligence, you can have not only a more effective process, but a much more human process.

So, before you make a knee jerk reaction and put new rules and controls in place to prevent unwanted actions, think about the conditions which created the unwanted condition, correct the conditions, and address the unwanted behaviour directly with the offending individual rather than penalize the entire workforce and limit the very qualities you hired the individual for.

By Paul E. Køhn P.Eng 

Paul E. Køhn P.Eng was trained as an Industrial Engineer at Dalhousie University in Halifax.  He ‘grew up’ in the automotive industry where he honed his Lean knowledge implementing various Lean and continuous improvement tools.  For the past 10 years he has been working as a consultant, coach, trainer and speaker in various industries always challenging the conventional thinking of his client organizations.  He specializes in all dimensions required for successful transformation:  Strategy development and deployment, Process Engineering, Technology design, selection and implementation, Portfolio, Program and Project Management and, his current passion, Organizational Change Management.

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