Curiosity and Trust: A Manufacturing Leadership Guide

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“Results driven.”  This is how you might have described a boss that I once had.  I was a fairly new manager at the time, and had just been promoted to run a department that was struggling with both delivery and quality.  My boss was definitely results driven, which on its own isn’t a bad thing, but there was something missing from his approach that kept him from being a leader – someone I wanted to follow.  Instead of creating a desire to win, he created an environment where we worked to avoid punishment.

I don’t want to spend time today writing about leadership styles, but I would like to talk about a couple of behaviors that get in the way of leadership – which I will define for my purposes as the ability to motivate people through change and challenges – and offer some suggested behaviors to focus on instead.

Leadership Compromisers: Distance and Blame

My boss engaged in two behaviors that I’ve seen in others from time to time that compromised his ability to connect with me and the rest of his management team: Distance and Blame.

In terms of distance he had three habits that I think of as contributing to the sense of “distance”.

  • He managed from either his office or the conference room. You rarely saw him on the production floor and if you did, chances were it was not going to be a pleasant visit.
  • He managed almost entirely from lagging indicators such as production reports and financial metrics and had very little understanding of the processes and behaviors that influenced the results.
  • When in conversation with him, he told you what he wanted you to hear and had little patience for questions and answers that differed from what he wanted to hear.

As for blame, if the results did not match the goals he had set, then someone had failed and needed to be held “accountable”, end of story.  There was very little consideration given to the systems, processes and underlying causes of the problems we were encountering.  If there was a problem, someone should have fixed it before it ever got to his attention. Instead of blame and distance, I recommend  Presence and Curiosity.

Leadership Enablers: Presence and Curiosity 

To be present, I ask managers I work with to consider a few basic techniques that have been shown to increase their sense of presence, as a serious side-benefit, also builds trust with others.

  • Breathe – A time-proven technique to increase presence is to learn how to pause and breathe deeply on a regular basis.

    At the beginning of the day while you consider what awaits you.  At the end of the day while reflecting on what went well and what can be done differently tomorrow.  And, most importantly, whenever you notice that you are strongly reacting to something happening around you… take the opportunity to pause, breathe deeply and relax before entering the situation.

You will find that it improves your mental clarity and problem solving skills when you give yourself a chance to step off the emotional rollercoaster of events around you.

  • Go See – The Japanese refer to it as the “Gemba” or “where the action is.”

    In western management, we sometimes call it “management by walking around”.  I strongly encourage the leaders I work with to create intentional times when they will make the rounds on the production floor and review specific process indicators with their team.

    There are two things that need to be in place for this to be effective:

  • 1) timeliness: everyone needs to know when to expect you.
  • 2) Clear expectations: this can’t just be a “how’s it going” meeting, there need to be clear indicators of success established ahead of time that are visual for everyone to see.
  • Listen – Take a pause from thoughts and concern in your head and really listen to what people saying to you (and not saying) when you are on the production floor.

Bonus trick: take a two heartbeat pauses after the person who is speaking finishes ,before you reply. You will find this is all the time you need to formulate a response. By waiting, you won’t miss what they are saying as you prepare your retort.  In addition, those seconds of silence create a strong sense of presence for the people around you.

Leadership Enabler: Curiosity

I ask leaders I work with to spend more time asking questions and less time telling people what they think.  There is a pattern of asking, formalized by Mike Rother in his book “Toyota Kata”, that I have found to be very powerful over the years. It goes like this:

  • What is the expected situation right now?

    • This could be visible, like a production target on the board or it could simply be a verbal question.  The idea is to make sure that you and everyone around you is on the same page in terms of “clear expectations”.
  • What is actually happening right now?

    • The difference between these answers is often referred to the “Gap” and its where most of our individual coaching and organizational learning stems from.  This gap does not have to be seen as a problem, in fact it works best if we see it as an opportunity to learn and grow.
  • What obstacles are standing in the way, right now?

    • Allow the person you are working with to own this answer.  As a leader this is where you can really start to understand what the process short comings might be and also where this individuals next opportunity for development lives.
  • What is your next experiment to overcome this obstacle?

  • The idea here is to worry less about finding the silver bullet and to work more with your team on developing their problem solving and planning skills.  Focus on one or two core issues at a time; don’t try to solve everything at once.
  • When can I come see what you’ve learned?

    • Allow the other person to establish the initial timeline, if it is unacceptably long, ask: “what would need to be different to complete the experiment sooner?”  Chances are they are very aware of the obstacles in front of them and would love either the permission or help in removing them.

Even if you already think you are good at being present and acting from a place of curiosity, I would encourage you to continue to practice.  At the end of the day results matter, but it’s our processes and individual behaviors that deliver those results.  You need to be there and be curious if you really want to move your organization in a positive direction.

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