Leadership: we need some theory

In last October’s newsletter I observed that much of what is preached in the name of leadership has no empirical foundation. Leadership ‘theorists’ postulate leaders should have visions, missions, behave in sympathy with the ‘situation’ of the subordinate and so on. They conduct ‘research’ to see if leaders do these things and then offer training to promote them. We have grown up to believe aspiration setting and people management is what leadership is all about.

But I don’t think so. With respect to people management, I have long believed people forgive lack of skill if they perceive will – what the person is saying is compelling, regardless of their ability to put it over well. With respect to aspiration setting I always ask if the opposite could ever be construed as a possibility. Would we want to ‘be the worst’ if we claim to want to ‘be the best’ and so on? It exposes the fatuous nature of aspiration statements.

There are no leaders without followers, so we have to ask ourselves why should someone follow another? I think the answer is because he or she has an idea or perspective that makes sense to others. Leadership is all about being able to talk about how the work works in a way that makes immediate sense to people. It is something that needs developing, for most of our managers behave in ways that are anything but like this.

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Ignoring variation

Variation provides a means for learning and improving. Here is an example of managers ignoring the opportunity: A correspondent who works in a call centre wrote:

‘When I first joined this organisation I was introduced to the ‘real world of management’ by a senior manager who decided to show me how you expose problems in the way you operate. He made the call length target shorter and therefore those that met the new target were seen as the ‘example’ and also the stick with which to beat those that didn’t (i.e. those people met them – therefore why don’t you?).’

Yet the opportunities for improvement lie in understanding variation, not obscuring it, as this ‘leader’ would achieve. The major causes of variation in call centre worker performance are in the system: the nature of customer demand, training, procedures, measures, inspection and so on cause variation. Moreover his insistence on meeting call time targets will cause further variation in the system – calls that are not resolved causing a call back, calls that are passed elsewhere causing duplication of effort and so on. Of this he remains oblivious. He is no leader, unless you regard sub-optimising the system to be the hallmark of leadership.

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Causing variation

In service organisations that are run on command and control principles workers do as they are told. Managers specify how work should be sorted, handled, and evaluated. Usually none of these edicts is based on knowledge of the customers’ demands. Managers become pre-occupied with moving resource (people) against the incoming work. It appears to make sense, when a work queue becomes large get resources to get it done. But unwittingly managers tamper – they increase variation in their system. Only when you run capability data – measures of, for example, end-to-end time to resolve customer queries, – do you discover this disturbing phenomenon. Managers are employed to make the work work better aren’t they?

Capability measures invite workers and managers alike to question, understand and act on the causes of variation, and most are usually under the organisation’s control. My recent evidenced to the Select Committee (which you can get from https://www.vanguard-method.com/v1_lib.php?current=950 illustrates this two case studies). Measurement is central to the leadership task.

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Getting out into the work

You can only improve the way work works when you can understand it and know how to act on it where it is done. Managers measures: standards, targets, service levels and so on, keep them blind to what is going on in the work. It leads to this kind of behaviour:

A major insurer has just struck an outsourcing agreement with a service provider. The service provider is to undertake the processing and administration of life and pensions policies. You can imagine how this looks at the top of the management factory, administration costs X per unit, the outsource provider contracts to do it for less and takes loads of your people off your hands. But where are the real costs of administration? How much waste, re-work, duplication and so on exist in the current work? Top management would have no idea – these things are kept hidden by the numbers they use.

Last year a Vanguard mole in another Life Insurer exposed the fact that their outsourced contractor had to put up with 70% of the input being unclean – unfit for processing – the contractor, on hearing this, went back to the negotiating table arguing that the contract assumed implicitly that all input would be clean. Oh really.

Fujitsu Services, a long-term user of Vanguard’s methods shows how to do it. Their contracts reduce costs year on year; they know how to work against demand; they have the methods for working in their clients’ systems and their measures are end-to-end, treating their service as part of their clients’ systems. You can only do this when leadership is connected to the work. When leaders work from afar with measures that are abstracted from the work they run into trouble. Most ‘leaders’ of our service organisations have this trouble.

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Using measures that pass the test

The test of a good measure is: Does this help us understand and improve the work?

Targets, standards, service levels and all the other paraphernalia of service organisation measurement do not pass this test. At best they provide a ‘rear view mirror’ on performance, at worst they hide the means for improvement. To run a service organisation you need measures of demand value and flow, and these measures need to be in the hands of people who do the work. Paradoxically it gives you more control. It also increases the system’ s capacity to deal with variety, the defining requirement for a service organisation. For if the system cannot respond to variety, costs will rise, as they have done in our service organisations. The central problem is that these systems employ specifications, standards and targets set and controlled by managers who are remote from the work. These measures hinder the system’s ability to handle variety.

If you want a simple guide for leaders who want to get in touch with the work read ‘Fit for the Future’, a short series I wrote to counter the nonsense launched by Peter Mandelson under the same title when he was at the DTI, at: https://www.vanguard-method.com/v1_lib.php?current=947

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How not to do it

The Sunday Times reported new proposals under which members of parliament could find themselves being assessed against standards judging them on how well they carry out their job. The idea is politicians will have to show they have met standards of efficiency with regard to the way they serve their constituents. They will be judged on performance according to whether they reply to letters from voters promptly, whether they chase up ministers over outstanding queries from their constituents and how regularly they hold surgeries. It is proposed that MPs will be assessed by inspectors from the British Standards Institution.

Extraordinary, dumb, and unbelievable to anyone with half a brain.

I guess BSI is seeking another market into which to diversify its parasitic and dysfunctional activities. After all, registrations to ISO 9000 are on the decline. The best thing we could do is close them down. I wish.

As it happens I got a call from a head hunter looking for a senior person to join BSI. She told me she got my name from my listing on the Q2002 conference web site. She said: ‘As you spoke on the future of quality, I thought you might know some people who are visionary.’ She obviously didn’t read my presentation. You can at: https://www.vanguard-method.com/v1_lib.php?key=the+future+of+quality&id=948