There are lots of reasons why even the most liberal pundits are acknowledging Romney as the clear winner of last night’s debate. The high point for me, however, was the exchange in which Romney explained the difference between leading and policy wonking to Obama.
You can read the actual words spoken by the two of them here in the transcript, but to paraphrase, Obama attempted to attack Romney for the lack of specific details behind some of his plans. Romney replied that the details were not something he was going to dictate – just the principles. He cited reducing tax deductions as an example, saying that there were lots of ways to do it. One way might be to simply put a cap on them – keep all of the existing deductions in place but tell folks their total deductions could not exceed $25,000. Another approach might be to go through the deductions line by line and keep some, while eliminating others. His point was that the method was not important so long as the fundamental principle of reducing the deductions was met. He cited the approach Reagan took when working with Tip O’Neill as an example.
The implication to me was that, had Obama approached Congress and the American people with a set of objectives for health care overhaul, for instance, asserting that he would go along with just about anything Congress wanted so long as it met his critical objectives – no one dropped for pre-existing conditions, no lifetime caps on coverage, access to insurance for everyone, etc…the President would have been more successful. Going to Congress with a comprehensive plan worked out in incredible detail and shoving it on Congress (and by definition, the American people) on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis resulted in confusion, dissention and a very strong possibility that it will be tossed out.
This resonated so strongly with me because of the clear parallels with effective leadership of a lean transformation. Toyota’s operational true north is nothing more than a set of guiding principles – one piece flow, zero defects, zero non-value adding costs, and 100% employee engagement. The specific actions to move the company closer to those objectives are left to managers, groups of employees and engineers. There is not a massive policy manual dictated from executives and staff wonks on high telling people exactly what they are supposed to do to meet those objectives.
The best road map and the maximum buy-in comes from letting people closer to the ground work out the details. So long as the path they come up with effectively moves the group in the right direction there is little to be gained and quite a lot to lose by having the boss meddle with the details. Perhaps the best boss I ever worked for was a guy named Dean Ruwe at Emerson’s Copeland Division. He often said that his job was to make sure the herd was headed north, which trail the herd followed was not important do long as it was headed in that direction.
Whether you are an executive attempting to transform an entire company, a manager tasked with changing a department, an employee leading a kaizen event, or a consultant advising an organization if you go into it with a set of specific, detailed mandates … you must follow steps 1,2,3; you must implement systems or procedures that follow this precise logic; you must do things exactly this way because that is what Toyota did … you are very likely to fail.
On the other hand, if you go into it with a clear objective, telling people that it is up to them to set the detailed path; letting them now that one option might be to follow Toyota’s example, but the best path will be one of their own making; that everyone’s opinions and ideas are needed but the final decisions should be weighted most heavily toward the ideas from the people closest to the work actually being changed; you are very apt to succeed.
Every organization has its nay-sayers and opponents to change. They lie in the weeds waiting for the change agent to spell out the details so they can pounce with all of the flaws in the plan. In politics, the Washigton Post’s Ezra Klein is their Republican basher in chief – never having heard a Republican proposal he cannot criticize. It is humorous reading his “Romney’s Policy Vagueness Pays Off” acknowledging that Romney (1) won the debate, and (2) gave him no fodder.
It is as if Romney said ‘ we need to drive from Chicago to Tucson and people have proposed going south through St Louis, onto Oklahoma, through a corner of Texas and in from the east; others have suggested going straight west to Denver, then south into New Mexico and in that way. I’ve looked at the map and both look workable to me; but even those routes can probably be improved on by people who have driven them before, and there may well be other options I haven’t seen. I will support whatever the people making the trip want to do so long as it gets us there on time.’ Do that and the Ezra Kleins in your organization are left to fume and fuss at your successful leadership, but powerless to stop you.