Renowned lean executive coach Michael Ballé explains why it is crucial for today’s businesses to foster an environment that rewards autonomous problem-solvers.
I’ve been worrying about this for a couple of years, and it’s now out in the mainstream press, so I worry doubly: odds are that we are sitting on the mother of all bubbles.
To save us from the end of the world as we know it following the last bubble popping, governments have had central banks twist every regulation in the book to print money give us some breathing space. That part of it worked, we’re still here.
But then, rather than use this free cash how it was meant to be spent on infrastructure, technology and innovation, to create meaningful jobs, jobs, jobs and facilitate further marketplace, and rather than work at reducing their inefficiencies to generate sustainable profits, corporate leaders have preferred to take out low cost loans to buy back their own shares and hide low EBITs by artificially increasing dividends and share value, and bankers have been happy to offer these loans, slice them up and collateralize them – sounds familiar?
Meanwhile employee engagement and hope for the future keeps going down.
An Environment Where Nothing Matters
We’ve created huge global bureaucracies, increasingly controlled by IT systems, which we’ve given to run to financiers. To some extent, it works – we get okay services and goods, lots of people have fairly stable jobs and the guys on top make a bundle (a bundle? Heaps!) of money every time they buy, sell, refinance and so on.
The downside, of course, is that nothing really matters.
People are stuck in narrow, meaningless functional jobs chained to computer systems they don’t control. Financiers treat companies as black boxes where work and tech are commodities. Customers get stuff, but no love. Companies underperform, and hide it with financial wizardry.
It Doesn’t Have to Be Like This
Firms can help their customers and enrich their lives. Employees can join this higher purpose and learn to solve daily problems to make things work and flow better. As a team, businesses can face challenges and embrace the opportunities new technologies offer. It can all make sense.
It starts with first understanding that we don’t know everything and before we lead, we need to orient: what is the game? How do we play it?
Then move forward with the realization that the right solutions might exist, but are so far unknown, and need to be discovered. The best way to do so is to involve every one everywhere in solving today’s problems and studying their countermeasures: why did they interpret the problem this way? Why did they come up with this solution? What is this telling us? Until we collectively become much better at facing and solving our problems – large or small, immediate or environmental.
The Value of Autonomous Problem-Solvers
I can visualize an ideal of an enlightened business way: encourage and support everyone to become a better, more autonomous problem-solver to better satisfy customers (in ways they find useful in their lifestyle, not in ways the company finds convenient).
A society of problems-solvers would find both more individual meaning and purpose, and be able to tackle collectively any of the challenges we’ve created for ourselves, mostly from the success of the very global, wasteful, environmentally destructive bureaucracies we’ve created (externalities? What a term!).
A society of problem-solvers would put people back in the driving seat, rather than systems or organizations. It would wake up the spirit of insight and initiative and give us back sense, purpose, and the glorious feeling that what we do matters, for its own sake, for the sake of doing it well in the service of others. And save us from the endless boom and busts.
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).