Saturday, 7 December 2013

A radical change of perspective

Everything we've been taught is about how to succeed in a known, predictable world. Competitiveness, we're told, is about making the right investment choices and then controlling the implementation to secure the return on investment. The most rational actor, with the most rigorous execution practice wins. Our leaders pride themselves in their powers of rational thinking and the discipline with which they get their decisions implemented.

Unfortunately, the world we live in is anything but predictable (has it even been?). It's hard to know what is coming next week, let alone in 10, 5 or even 3 years. The decide-and-execute model now has to work on the very short term and drives every one crazy by the senselessness of so-called "rational decisions" and the brutality of its execution practices. A senior manager doesn't like how his production unit works? Why not scratch it all and invest in a new one elsewhere - let's play poker, let's go all in, and let's burn millions and waste years of experience and expertise - for what?

As Joseph Stiglitz points out, today's competitiveness comes from 1) the speed of the learning curve and 2) the spillover from this learning curve. This is what we've been exploring in the lean movement: lean is about learning to learn.

Learning can't be forced. To learn, people have to be engaged. They certainly can be pushed into the pool to start swimming, but sooner or later they need to have fun with it, or they'll simply let themselves sink to the bottom as so many are doing now. The trouble with learning is that every one loves figuring out something else to what they already know, but hates having to tackle a completely new topic: learning is not understanding, learning is doing. So we need to be tough, but we need to be patient and kind as well. Tough kindness. Kind toughness. Tight and loose. Fixed and flexible. Yin and yang. The only proof of learning are results, but learning needs space for try and see without blame at the first failure.

To create learning, we need a radical shift in perspective in our management systems. We should no longer discuss sites, functions or areas, but people. We should no longer look at execution of action plans, but at learning activities and the speed of acquisition of new know-how (I know how to do this, which I didn't use to know). More fundamentally, we should no longer see our organizations as perfect mechanisms, set in stone by the IT reporting and workflow system, but as the sum of contributions that people make to the business, and what each, individually brings to the party. We need to change our minds, radically, in order to change our practice.

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