I have seen this situation happening quite a few times in my career in Information Technology. I am pretty confident that it can be generalized to other types of industry as well.
Here is the scene. The executive has a vision and strategy. But the teams just do not deliver : delay in delivery, quality problems requiring unplanned correction releases at an unforeseen costs, an eventually reduced scope of what is delivered etc… Executive is subsequently disappointed and struggles in adjusting the vision as she doesn’t have a clear understanding of the capacity of the teams : how to set a vision when the outputs are unpredictable ? The trouble with adjusting the vision then impact the teams : how to set clear priorities when a strategy is no longer clear enough?
The organization has entered the vision – execution deadlock : no clear strategy > no clear priorities for delivery > no predictable outputs > no clear strategy … and so on. As a result people feel overwhelmed with the issues and the problems they are facing, not knowing which one to start with as they all seem intricate.
How to break the deadlock ? I have seen Lean helping in fixing this while addressing both perspectives …
1. Help team in building their predictability
At first, many teams we are coaching don’t have a clue of what their performance is. When you question them about what their quality, delay, productivity figures are, they frown at best or show tons of non-actionable reports. As if the IT world was predictable … They might even laugh at our questions, labeling us as naive because there is no such thing as a project being delivered on time in the “real world” (but as David Heinemeier Hansson wrote, who wants to live in THIS real world ?)
This makes project managers cringe : how can they set up a plan which allows to implement the leaders vision when the teams can’t tell when they will deliver what at what costs ? So they try to address this issue (which is good) but they do it the wrong way : they ask for more estimates, more reporting and disturb the team. Managers all the while start to play the cover-my-ass games. The atmosphere in the organization become stifling as the blame game has become the de-facto culture. Been there many times and it is not pretty.
Rather then trying to build accurate plans in advance out of the blue, the lean proposition is to help teams in building their predictability. Understanding what their operational performance is, how to manage it, how to tell when they produce quality or not, how to express problems and make sure they are solved properly and improve : these are the keys.
Lean sheds a clear light on both the capacity and capability of work. This helps in aligning the team and having a shared purpose. This also helps in taking the teams out of the “moral arena” they are quite often stuck in, as Matthew B. Crawford notices in Shop Class as Soulcraft.
Most importantly, as the team members start to measure their performance, they discover what they are able to achieve in a sustainable way and they build confidence in their ability. The team has been put in the right context to succeed. This removes bad stress and make the team trustworthy : other teams will start to trust them. Including the executives. Please refer to this story I’ve posted on InfoQ for more details on how to build team predictability in an IT environment.
2. Help executives in understanding which problems their teams are struggling with
Once the teams start to deliver what is expected, when it is expected with the right level of quality, executives have actionable input data they can draw on to adjust their strategy. In that respect, the predictability of the teams is a invaluable asset.
Lean brings the mean (i.e. the actual leadership practice) for executives to ensure their teams are working on the right problems : Gemba Walks. By going and seeing where the value is created, asking why and showing respect (as per the Fujio Cho famous mantra), the executive creates the opportunity of connecting the dots. She can actually see whether the teams are working on the right problem and whether their operational daily objectives are in line with strategy.
In addition, through her questions and the topic she addresses, she can show the team what matters to her and how the team’s performance directly connect to her strategy. While doing so, the leader has gathered facts and operational data that helps her in understanding the reality of the problems the team is facing and to tune her strategy accordingly. Régis Médina calls this The Helicopter, a great exercise of organization alignment.
This sounds so deceptively simple, yet it is difficult and so powerful. Lead With Respect is a great story about an Executive learning to put this into practice.
The deadlock is now starting to become cracked and the vicious circle is emerging from the chaos. The “real world” has changed meaning : it is about problems as opportunities and continuous improvement. No one pretends it is easy but it is priceless.