Contributor post by Michael Ballé, co-author of The Lean Strategy.
Management is obsessed with… management. Today’s core idea of management is that the right processes will deliver the right results. With disciplined routines and rituals, all will be well. Managers are drawn to theories of the mind that hinge on habits, and how to “change” bad habits into good ones. Companies are structured around forecasting and budgeting cycles. Sure enough, if you practice the rain dance every day, some days – it rains.
Clearly, there are routine jobs which need doing and sensible processes can make more sense than chaos, but this narrow focus on regulating every human activity largely hides the bigger picture. It’s also fairly recent, as earlier management thinkers believed that management’s job was more about coordinating diverse activities and clarifying interfaces than ensuring execution discipline.
People Are Not Human Machines to Be Set
They are people, to be inspired, motivated, supported, recognized who want to be part of a greater project as well as have a reasonably safe and interesting work life. For that matter, machines and systems also require a lot of care, in terms of maintenance, design, usage, reprogramming in an ever-changing environment. People are creative, machines aren’t. They both need different sorts of care.
This “ritual” managerial level of thinking often hides the fact that both humans and machines work at a material level. At some point, a salesperson talks to a customer, a customer uses the product, a tool touches the part, a line of code sends an instruction. This is where value is really added. Management rituals become meaningless red tape if they hide this reality – or on the other end they can become powerful tools, if they help people get ever closer to this reality, all the way to the point where they hit the laws of physics or psychology.
We Try to Deny the Emotional Level
Other than the material level, there is also an emotional level we often try to deny. More frequently than not, managerial decisions and outcomes are driven by who likes whom, or who wants to stick it to whom. People have moods, teams have ups and downs, and companies go through morale swings that greatly affect their performance. Historically, this is not a surprise as we all know that morale of troops impacts the outcome of battle just as much as numbers.
Then there is an intellectual level; how the main challenges are framed. Jeff Bezos intriguing “there is no Day 2 – it is always Day 1” is a very powerful frame that expresses that Amazon will disrupt, then disrupt, then disrupt. Toyota’s notion that its mission is to “lead the way to the future of mobility” (as opposed to sell cars) has far-ranging impacts. There are many ways to frame an issue. As Bezos himself says in his 2016 letter to shareholders: “There are many ways to center a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality.”
There Is Also a Spiritual Level
Yes, spiritual. Bezos talks about vitality. Toyota veterans will talk about energy and vigor. Spiritual in the sense of the clarity of your intent and the energy you put behind it. Leaders that change the world around us don’t do it just because they have the right routines and rituals in place. They do so because their intent is stronger than anyone else’s, and then they attract the right talent, find the energy to disrupt status quo time and time again.
Companies are people organizing work of people to deliver products and services to people. To truly understand management, we must look beyond the ritual level and understand how material value is affected by emotional, intellectual and even spiritual forces, and look at every person as a full human being – whole.
Michael Ballé, PH.D. is a best-selling author, speaker and co-founder of the Institut Lean France. He holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Social Sciences and Knowledge Sciences. He is also a renowned lean executive coach. His latest book is The Lean Strategy (with Dan Jones, Jacques Chaize and Orry Fiume).