Over the past couple weeks we’ve witnessed what happens when leaders don’t have the emotional intelligence to admit to even the smallest and most originally inconsequential mistakes. This has caused me to reflect on some of mine over the past few decades. I won’t bore or entertain you with some of the personal doozies – we’ve all been there, done that – but there have been a few that have taught me life-changing lessons.
Obviously that’s the importance of reflecting on mistakes: to learn. Then move forward, change and improve, and perhaps even teach.
After committing a design error that cost a lot of time and money, one of my first bosses sat me down and admonished me to “sweat the details.” Although over thirty years ago, I remember that like it was yesterday. As an engineer I thought I was detail-oriented, but what he meant was I should peel back the onion to understand what was really happening. Eventually I would realize that this is the same as asking “why?” more than one time.
I’ve remembered this both professionally and personally, and I’ve learned to enjoy the thrill, and mystery, of investigation. What is really going on beneath the surface? Why is that machine producing bad parts? Dig past the simplistic answer of operator error (generally leading to the equally ineffective “retrain!” response) to discover poor procedures, maintenance, machine specification, even utility fluctuations. Poverty and homelessness? Think past the intellectually lazy “bad decisions” to understand education, discrimination, the cascading impact of medical conditions and cost, and social barriers and stigmas when trying to claw your way back up from the bottom. Take the time to dig deeper instead of jumping to conclusions.
Heed Early Warnings
At the turn of the century I was leading a manufacturing operation making telecom photonics equipment, most of which was used to test the laser diodes at either end of long-haul fiber optic cable. It was a startup that had been acquired by a much larger company, therefore there were few procedures in place. We had an 18 month backlog and, thankfully, a team of people that were eager to learn and improve. Over the course of just five months we increased production 10x, with the same people, floorspace, and equipment, just by using lean manufacturing methods. A morning obeya meeting, visual controls, standard work, kanban and one-piece flow.
In April of 2001 we noticed an order cancellation. Odd, but with a huge backlog we didn’t care. By then we were building on our new productivity to expand and hire. Then there was another cancellation, and another. Still, the backlog was huge. By August the cancellations began cascading and we started to analyze, and discovered that the industry had overestimated long-haul fiber optic data demand and and overbuilt capacity. Just four weeks later the backlog dried up completely and it looked like demand for the entire product line would be zero – zero! – for at least two to even five years.
On September 10th, 2001, having hired a new employee just a week earlier and with openings still posted, the decision was made to shut down the facility and lay off over 100 people. And the following day, September 11th, made the week even worse. Why, oh why, didn’t we take that first cancellation seriously? Perhaps the ultimate outcome wouldn’t have changed, but the effects, especially on people, could have been mitigated. Amazing how fast hyper growth can turn to hyper decline.
Ever since then I’ve had my eye peeled for any sign of disruption in the flow of all things supposedly normal, perhaps to the point of being OCD. It goes both ways: looking for signs of downturn as well as signs of potential opportunities. Yes, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately analyzing the percolating signs of a recession, and thinking about what strategies to put into place to both shield us and capitalize on potential opportunities.
Learning Creates Sustaining
A few years after the telecom equipment operation I found myself leading a mid-market medical device company. I had learned about the power of lean and continuous improvement in previous operations, so I set the company on a path to implement those concepts. 5S, value stream mapping, basic training. I knew what had to be done, the tools required, so just do it. We even had a plan to “do two lean tools per year.” You can probably guess what happened.
I didn’t ask “why?” – I just directed. By directing, learning wasn’t happening, and we weren’t focused on the right problems in the first place. And without learning, I knew lean wouldn’t be sustaining. So we took a step back, went through a hoshin process, and decided on what needed to be done. As the staff became more adept and comfortable with identifying and analyzing problems, I became a guide, providing suggestions that they then took to identify tools, learn, and implement.
I loved watching people learn, the excitement of seeing problems solved, and the energy when people felt they had the ability and support to create and improve. Interestingly, there were still a couple lean concepts that I knew were critical, but were so counterintuitive that the team wouldn’t try them on their own. One example was a daily obeya meeting. Who wants yet another meeting, let alone daily? So that was one I had to direct and put into place, starting on the factory floor at 6am and cascading to departments and eventually my executive staff (video conferenced to the other facilities) at 8:30am each morning. It took only a few weeks for everyone to understand the immense communication and coordination value of just one short meeting.
Help people learn, analyze, implement, and become teachers themselves. By not simply directing, the initial progress may be slower, but the long-term results are greater.
Those are just a few of the many lessons I’ve learned. Lately I’ve been reflecting on what really matters – people, relationships, and experiences. It’s changed, again, how I think about my business and professional life. What is the value of growth? What brings real enjoyment? How do I hope to remember these years? Am I making any mistakes now that I’ll have to learn from in the future?