Google the word “leadership,” and you’ll receive more than a billion results. Search for leadership books on Amazon, and you’ll find more than 60,000 results. Much has been written about leadership.
Why, then, have the Gallup Q12 Engagement Survey and Gallup’s research on managers continued to reflect large gaps in leadership effectiveness? Why does dissatisfaction with one’s direct supervisor remain a top reason for voluntary turnover?
Achieving excellence in leadership has not traditionally been treated the way achieving operational excellence has, by codifying performance expectations. Standardizing management practices centers on being more thoughtful about how a leader spends his, her, or their day.
Standardizing work is a proven way to reduce the variation in the quantity and quality of work output, which creates consistently high levels of operational performance. Standardizing leadership practices—a proven approach that is relatively unknown outside of Lean manufacturing (a manufacturing production method that reduces waste and increases productivity) circles—is equally effective in developing more effective, resilient, and agile leaders.
In short, leader standard work (LSW) creates more consistent and effective leadership practices across an organization. Operating with LSW creates a consistent leadership experience for employees, boosts business performance, and is a fast way to spread proven management practices across the organization. It’s a glue that, when used in conjunction with operational standard work and daily management, creates high-performing work environments.
The practice applies to anyone who manages work and leads teams. Whether a frontline supervisor, middle manager, or a senior leader, capabilities and results improve when leaders adopt the type of LSW appropriate for their level in the organization.
To begin adopting LSW, recognize that the practice will likely require significant mindset shifts across a large portion of your leadership team. It’s not as simple as giving someone a checklist of effective leadership practices to follow. It takes time, repetition, and a commitment to operating in a more disciplined way.
Two fundamental questions initiate the process: What are the key responsibilities of leaders? And, how should a leader spend his or her time fulfilling those responsibilities?
Six Primary Responsibilities
Myriad roles leaders play can be condensed into six primary responsibilities:
- Uphold the organization’s purpose, mission, vision, values, and annual goals,
- Manage process and performance
- Build and foster a culture of excellence
- Develop people
- Build and manage relationships
- Learn continuously
With clarity about leadership responsibilities, the next question is: how? There are seven key activities that can enable leaders to fulfill their six responsibilities.
While it’s true that leaders’ mindsets, communication style, and attitudes matter, the practical aspect of being a leader comes down to what one does with the minutes in a day that he, she, or they are given. Leading is largely an exercise in prioritization and time management. LSW codifies the choices leaders make.
Seven Key Activities
Seven key activities are needed to fulfill one or more of the leadership responsibilities and form the components of LSW:
- Planning and preparing
- Managing daily work
- Going and seeing
- Coaching for professional development
- Coaching to build problem-solving capabilities
- Developing & managing relationships
Planning and Preparing
Planning is the process of defining the actions required to achieve a desired goal. It includes both the timeframe for achieving the goal and who is accountable for the outcome. Planning also includes strategically thinking through an approach a leader will take in conversations and interactions, with an end goal in mind.
All too often leaders forge ahead or react in the moment without consideration. Inserting a clarity pause reduces the likelihood that habitual tendencies will prevail, which can lead to accidental success, at best.
Leader standard work is built with sufficient “think” time to ensure a leader’s goals are met more reliably and with greater ease, and it lowers the risk of creating negative, unintended consequences. When leaders operate with greater intentionality, they’re able to accomplish more and build stronger relationships for the future.
Managing Daily Work
Whether an organization produces goods or delivers services, providing value to customers is the most essential task of an organization. Therefore, the ultimate role of a leader is to ensure his, her, or their team gets work completed safely, reliably, and efficiently. This requires management.
However, somewhere along the way (likely when the Industrial Age began), the concept of management has gotten skewed. Some have grown to believe that a manager’s job is to manage people. In reality, a manager’s job is to manage the work and support the people doing the work. Properly managing the work requires clearly defined standard work, which is absent in some organizations.
A leader’s job—no matter the level—becomes easier when the work is managed well, which provides the planning and reflection time needed to look ahead and shift from reactive problem-solving to proactive problem prevention.
Shift from reactive problem-solving to proactive problem prevention.
Going & Seeing
In well-crafted LSW, leaders spend a significant amount of time at Gemba (where the work is done). Gemba is defined as seeing with one’s own eyes how work is accomplished and how customers engage with an organization’s goods or services.
There are four types of Gemba visits, each with a clearly defined purpose:
- Learning about the work itself, the physical environment, performance, and the people doing the work. What obstacles to success are they encountering?
- Checking performance against targets, adherence to work standards, and output quality.
- Cultivating relationships with employees in the quest to build an intentional culture.
- Problem-solving to assure performance gaps are readily identified, scientific problem-solving is actively used, and abnormalities are appropriately addressed
Leader standard work includes these visits as an expectation with a defined cadence. The leader’s calendar reflects this commitment.
Coaching for Professional Development
Professional development provides a workforce with the knowledge and skills they need to do their jobs well and advance in their careers—both of which are key contributors to an organization’s success. Developing people moves them closer to their potential, which leads to deeper engagement and retention.
Employees at all levels need two types of development: skill-centric and capability-centric. Skill development helps team members build proficiency in specific tasks or activities, whereas capability development helps people improve overall performance so they can advance in the organization and take on more challenging work.
Developing a team in these two areas is often an afterthought, or it is sporadically achieved. Including professional development as an intentional aspect of LSW increases the likelihood that leaders make the time for this vital role.
Coaching to Build Problem-Solving Capabilities
Organizations have an acute need to build armies of proficient, scientific problem-solvers. Building this capability is no easy feat.
Problem solvers need proficiency in two skill sets: the technical aspects of problem solving—the mechanics—and the supportive skills that enable problem-solving excellence, such as building capabilities to:
- think critically,
- distill and synthesize information,
- lead change, and
- know how and when to escalate problems.
But here’s the rub: leaders should not begin coaching problem-solving until they have achieved at least a moderate degree of proficiency as a scientific problem-solver themselves. You wouldn’t hire a piano teacher who was just learning to play the piano, would you? This reality requires leaders to engage with a proficient problem-solving coach.
Developing & Managing Relationships
Significant time is needed to develop and nurture the wide variety of internal and external relationships that help leaders either achieve success or make their jobs more difficult. Because nurturing these relationships takes time, including this need in LSW and reserving time in one’s calendar makes it more likely that a leader will do this important work.
Time for regular reflection is arguably a leader’s greatest need and is often ignored. Reflection is central to the study and adjust phases of PDSA (plan-do-study-adjust), a proven approach to achieving goals and closing gaps. Leaders often achieve greater success with building a disciplined practice of reflection when they view each day, week, or month as a PDSA cycle.
Setting The Stage For Success
In addition to defining a consistent cadence for the above activities, there are a few corollary musts that are critical success factors in performing the seven key activities to fulfill a leader’s six key responsibilities.
First, highly effective leaders possess mindset and behavioral standards that should be developed in and adhered to by all leaders, such as operating with humility and curiosity and the most foundational of them all: possessing an obsession for delivering high value to customers. These mindsets and behaviors serve as a necessary membrane that surrounds all thought and action.
The second is addressing the organizational vulnerabilities that should be shored up for leaders to be successful. The first vulnerability exists in organizations that aren’t clear about their purpose, aren’t intentional about their strategy, and/or don’t have alignment across the leadership team about one, the other, or both. This notably common condition creates organizational drag—unproductive ambiguity at the highest levels in the organization that cascades down to the frontlines.
The second vulnerability is the degree of clarity and discipline a leadership team collectively exhibits toward priorities. Building strong prioritization skills and disciplined adherence to priorities is a requirement for fulfilling the first responsibility. Operating with unclear, frequently changing priorities or those that conflict with one another creates a second type of organizational drag.
Developing the discipline to say “no” or “not yet” and de-selecting from excessively long lists of problems to be solved and opportunities to be explored is vital for leaders to succeed.
While leader standard work is a powerful way to improve business performance and provide a consistent method for leadership development, there’s often pushback against efforts to develop and deploy it. One common argument is: leadership is an art, and art can’t be standardized.
While it’s true that each person’s journey to becoming a leader is based on his, her, or their life experience, beliefs, attitude, and drive—and those inputs shape the way a leader approaches decisions and conversations—there are proven leadership methods leaders can incorporate into the way they lead.
LSW does not dictate the specific path for leading, but it ensures that everyone gets to the same destination with some degree of consistency and predictability.
How leaders lead matters. Outstanding business performance is impossible without an excellence-laced infrastructure. That includes excellent processes, excellent improvement methods, and excellent work environments—all of which are impossible without excellent leaders.