You should want to know if…

Posted on May 14, 2013 · Posted in Execution, Fundametals, Leadership, Problem Solving

When redesigning and implementing a first of its kind product development process in a previous job, my team and I experienced a wide range of emotions, reactions, resistance and, ultimately, acceptance as we worked to institute a far better way of developing products and services in our division.  Along the way, I received a lot of compliments on how things were working, the reduction of stress associated with really understanding how things should work and the quality that was being produced by our very capable Product, IT, Operations and supporting teams for our customers.

I always like the nice comments, but, as I told my team then, my audiences now and my customers…”I can’t really do much with a compliment.”  They feel good, sure and it’s an honor when somebody actually goes out of their way to deliver good news.  I would never want to discourage that!   It doesn’t happen often enough and it’s an area in which we can all likely develop.  Real improvement, however, only comes from a clear knowledge of the issues that are still present.

Compliments deliver validation.  Problems deliver opportunities–but only if the leader really sees them as opportunities to be explored, not nuisances to be hidden or ignored.

The thing is…every company has problems, and there’s likely many more in any company than any leader would like to admit.  They’re everywhere.  The good news for any company is that all of your competitors have problems too, so you’re not really in hole, you just need a better flashlight to find your way out.

In my opinion, what separates truly great companies from mediocre ones are the companies that embrace the knowledge that they’re not perfect, actively seek to open up the black box and dig into the issues.

I believe in that old Toyota tradition of celebrating the person who stops the assembly line to report a problem.  I used to publish harsh reviews of our process (anonymously for the submitter) in our newsletters so that others with hidden opinions would feel comfortable with the idea of complaining. I would always rather get active resistance than passive.  Find ways to get the passive resistors to bring their concerns out in the open.  I used to engage the active resistors in experiments.  They’d challenge an idea and together we’d design a few different tests to figure out the right way to do things…and I’d let them pick the experiment to run.

I have come to think of contrary opinion as “an opportunity to experiment” rather than something to fear or hide.  I never cared if I was right, only that we agreed on the right way to move forward.  Vocal resistors can become the best vocal supporters.  They’re also often, by nature of their willingness to challenge, conduits through which passive resistors funnel opinions.

My real point is this:  if you’re a leader and you’re not actively searching for problems in your company with the intent, not to blame, but to improve, you are not really leading.  If you know problems exist in your ranks, people are unhappy, etc., and you don’t provide an outlet channel, you are risking a lot.  Provide a safe and blameless channel for people to provide feedback.  Embrace their issues or even just the possibility that their complaint has some grounds, no matter how painful it may be to you personally, or the underlying problems are more likely to eat at your organization than accidentally disappear.

The problems are going to be there whether they are brought out in the open or not.  Turn on the light and your company, division, and/or team(s) will help define a new path to productivity.  Take up a new motto:  “WANT to know…”