Improvements that last are built on stable employees’ layer

It keeps striking me: improvement programs are not built to last for a simple reason: those who impulse and carry them out won’t stay, while those who stay are barely empowered to take a leading part. Explanation:
Consider any organization as a three stories (UK: 3 storeys) pyramid; top management on top, middle management in the middle and operational staff in the lower base.


Top

Any major improvement program, henceforth transformation program, needs to be initiated or at least endorsed and backed-up by top management. This is mandatory to:

  • insure the program makes significant contribution and is fully aligned with organization’s goal
  • will get required attention and resources allocation

Yet most top managers won’t stay long in their seats. Competition is fierce in almost any business and shareholders are very demanding but not very forgiving. Top managers may be “putsched” out by an ambitious colleague, or simply get an unrefusable offer somewhere else.

The successor, as ancient emperors used to do, will erase traces from their predecessor and the programs previously launched reoriented or just stopped.
When top managers change often and behave like that, staff will cynically call any new initiative the “flavor of the month” and wisely wait for the next one to come.
I haven’t seen a program survive the sponsor’s departure, which is sad because most of them were necessary for the organization’s future.

Middle

In the middle of the pyramid we’ll find champions, masters, black belts and the like. Most of them lead the program in almost military style, meaning they take charge like noncommissioned officers leading their squads.

Despite all literature about leadership and its values, most leaders keep acting as commanders. Their titles, belts, expertise and assignment to the project make them legitimate. Their sponsors and bosses often have less expert knowledge in the field and rely on them. What is important are results. Building a learning organization for sustainable achievements does not seem a target.

The champions and belted experts soon will try to value their expertise, internally or externally.

It is (was ?) a plague in some industries where six sigma black belts sell themselves somewhere else as soon as they get their credential and can claim some successful project.

Among such bounty hunters are ambitious ones who call themselves lean experts because they were involved in one or two 5S workshops, then go searching for a better paycheck. No kidding.

When the leaders leave (could be restated when leavers lead..!) the squad members are most often helpless as they were kept in execution position, not much in learning nor empowerment.

Progress stalls, performance falls back and program stops.

Bottom

At the bottom of the pyramid are the doers. They are generally less educated, have lower incomes, accumulated some years of life and experience, are in charge of a family and have realistic limited career ambitions. Except in some areas and for specific skills, they are not very mobile. For them job hopping carries more risks than benefits.

They are faithful and often satisfied with their job, even if a better pay and/or more interesting content would be welcome.

Despite the investment in developing their problem solving skills would yield the longest if not best interests for the company, this investment is seldom made. They are kept in a participant status, with a white or yellow belt to distinguish (and reward) them from those who never attended any workshop.

Having a large base of people able to analyze and solve problems, empowered to make changes and improvements within a formal and standardized framework would make improvement programs last, instead of remaining expert-dependent.

Instead of breeding an army of little geniuses, organizations prefer “one genius with thousand helpers”*.

When the genius leaves, helpers remain…helpless!


* from the book Good to Great, Jim Collins. To learn more about it, you may like : http://jimmyunderwood.wordpress.com/2009/02/20/a-genius-with-a-thousand-helpers/

 

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