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The Politics of Improvement: The Challenge of Getting Company Leaders' Buy-In

Understanding what motivates executives will help improvement leaders steer them toward doing what is right for the company.

Most people agree that the first step to launching an improvement strategy is to make sure the company executives are on board and leading the effort. Most company executives understand the importance of improving. If both of these statements are true, then why is it still so difficult to get buy in from the company leadership?

A few years ago, a CEO of a fairly large company asked for my help. “One of our company values is ‘teamwork,’” he said. “It is difficult to promote improvement and teamwork when my own staff does not act like a team.”

Later that month, I met with the CEO and one of his top executives (let’s call him Joe… not his real name) to plan a two-day workshop to help his staff understand what it takes to become a team. We began to review a proposed agenda when Joe noticed that a team-building exercise was included.

“Wait a minute. Why is there a team-building exercise on this agenda?” he asked. “You don’t understand. We are busy executives running a major company. We don’t have time for this nonsense!”

I closed my books and began to pack my computer bag. “I have worked with many groups over the years, and my approach is to do what is included on this agenda,” I said. “So, if there is no desire to put in the necessary work, then we are wasting each other’s time.” With that, I got up to leave.

The CEO stopped me and turned to Joe and said, “We will do everything on this agenda including the team-building exercise if that is what it takes to help us become a team.”

After the meeting, the CEO and Joe invited me to dinner. When we got to the restaurant, I went to wash my hands and noticed that Joe was following me. After he caught up, he said, “Hey, about that team-building exercise we discussed earlier. What do you plan to do for that?” I explained that there were several activities I had in mind and would pick one once I learned more about the participants and the company.

Most company leaders won’t support something they don’t understand.

“No, you don’t understand,” he said. “I need to know what the exercise is and you need to tell me how to solve any problems you present.”

That is when it dawned on me that most company leaders won’t support something they don’t understand, and they probably will not ask for help since it would make them look weak in front of their peers.

The same key learning applies to lean and Six Sigma initiatives. If an improvement team reports their ‘wins’ to a group of company leaders who are not familiar with the tools, terms and methodologies, they probably will get a tepid response and then feel that the executives are not supporting their efforts.

Lack of understanding is just one of many hurdles that must be overcome in order for an improvement initiative to be supported by upper management.

Corporate politics plays a significant role in hindering the buy-in from company executives as demonstrated in the following example:

David Edwards eased himself into the black leather executive chair behind a large oak desk. He looked around his new office. “This is bigger than my first apartment,” he thought. His entire career was crafted over the years to prepare him for this position. Still, he had butterflies since it was the first day working for an unfamiliar company. His train of thought was interrupted by a knock at the door.

“Mind if I come in?” said the CEO of the company, David’s boss.

“Yes, please do. It does not appear that they have delivered any guest chairs yet,” said David with a bit of embarrassment.

“No worries. I just wanted to check in to see if there was anything I can do to help you get settled,” said the CEO. “I am pleased you decided to join us. Most people don’t know this yet, but our company is in trouble. Every month, we fall further behind our competitors, and based on your past track record of implementing improvements, I am hoping you will help us turn this around.”

“I will do my best,” said David. “However, I only lead one of five business units that report to you.”

“I am hoping you can help me influence the rest of my staff,” said the CEO. “In fact, if you are successful, my plan is to recommend you to the board of directors to take my place when I retire in a couple of years.”

“Wow… That would be great. I will do everything I can to not let you down.”

Don't Bother Us in Any Way

Later that day, David was startled to find a tall, gaunt-looking man with hollow cheeks and dark eyes standing in front of his desk. “Mr. Edwards, I am Mr. Smith, and I run the largest, most profitable business in this company. As such, my staff and I are very busy, and I don’t expect that you or any of your employees will need our help or bother us in any way. I wanted to acknowledge your presence and wish you well in your new role.”

With that, Mr. Smith turned around and walked out of the office.

“Brrr… What a cold reception. If he represents the culture in this company,” thought David, “then I have a lot of work to do.”

Over the next nine months, David made several changes to the way the business he oversaw operated. First, he swapped out some of his direct reports in order to bring in people who shared his values of respecting employees and teamwork.

Next, he and his leadership team (with input from all levels of the company and customers) developed a strategic vision and adjusted the metrics and organizational structure to support that vision. Then, he made sure everyone in the company (himself included) went through training on the improvement tools in order to develop a common language and understanding.

Once this was done, they launched teams that were focused on improving processes in order to better meet their customers’ needs. Throughout the launch of the improvement efforts, David invited the other business unit leaders to participate, but he rarely got much interest.

At the next annual executive council meeting, David shared with his boss and peers some of the results of their improvement efforts. “In the past year, employee accidents are significantly down, quality is up, and our ‘on time delivery’ has improved from the low 70% range to over 95% while reducing delivery lead times and inventory levels.”

“On time delivery to a promise date is easy to manipulate,” sneered Mr. Smith. “That is no big accomplishment.”

“No, we don’t use ‘on time to promise’ any longer,” said David. “We only look at the date the customer requests the order.”

“Wow,” said the CEO. “That is the kind of improvement I am hoping to see from all of the other businesses. Please pass along my congratulations to your teams.”

Mr. Smith leaned over to one of his executives and whispered, “David Edwards is becoming a threat. I may have to do something to knock him down a peg or two.”

A few weeks later, the CEO paid a visit to David. “I wanted you to be the first to know about a recent development,” he said. “The board of directors has offered me an early retirement package that is too good to pass up. Unfortunately, they felt that you had not been with the company long enough to be promoted to CEO, so they gave the position to one of your peers. Thanks for all you have done and good luck.” With that, he was gone.

Later that day, Mr. Smith summoned David to his office. “I assume you have heard the news,” he said, looking down his nose. “I believe someone informed the board that the health of our dear CEO was not good and that led them to offer him an early retirement package.”

David noticed that Mr. Smith broke into a sinister smile. “And, they gave me his job so I am your new boss. And one of my first acts as CEO is to terminate your employment. You have 30 minutes to pack up your office and leave the premises or I will be forced to call security.”

David was stunned. “What just happened?” he thought as he packed up his personal belongings. “We were doing so well and this is the result? I am not sure it pays to try and excel.”

There are many pitfalls that company leaders must navigate to be successful. So, how does an improvement leader go about getting their company executives on board?

Three Tips to Bringing Execs On Board

Provide Education Whenever Possible – Executives usually don’t want to admit that they don’t know what they don’t know. Keep in mind that many leaders, especially those who do not have a manufacturing or engineering background, may not have had much exposure to the lean and Six Sigma tools. So, improvement leaders may need to dedicate some one-on-one time in order to address any deficiencies. Another good tactic is to suggest that all company leaders attend training in order to show their support and to help build a common culture and understanding.

By the way, if you work for an executive who is willing to admit that they don’t know something, this level of humbleness is usually a good sign that this person is a true leader, which will bode well for the future of the company.

Tie Improvement Efforts to Strategic Goals – One of the first company functions that needs to be exposed to the improvement tools and methodologies is the finance group. Many improvements (5S for example) may prove difficult to calculate a hard dollar savings. So, if an improvement team has an accountant type resource as one of the members, they have a better chance to show the business executives that the savings are real. Otherwise, you may be accused of trying to use “smoke and mirrors” to validate the efforts and justify the costs of the training and resources.

Most Executives Don’t like Being Told What to Do – Early in my career, a consulting group presented its lean implementation methodology to me and my boss, the leader of the business. This was a 10-step process and when we pushed back on a couple of the steps, the consultants called us uninformed idiots.

“If you all don’t follow our methodology to the letter, you will fail and you will end up paying us more money to clean up your mess!” they told us. After we fired them, we developed our own approach that we owned and worked hard to make sure it was successful. People (executives included) tend to own something they have a hand in developing. Keep in mind, that when a new executive comes on board, you and your teams will probably need to make significant adjustments to the current approach in order to accommodate the new leader’s experiences and convictions. Otherwise, they are likely to shut down the entire initiative. (Sadly, many executives don’t want to support something their predecessor started since they will worry about who will get credit.)

Yes, there are many obstacles and pitfalls company leaders must navigate in order to be successful. Understanding what motivates executives will help improvement leaders steer them toward doing what is right for the company.

By the way, in the example I mentioned at the beginning of this article, we held the 2-day workshop and did a fairly extensive team-building activity. Most of the company leaders who attended did an outstanding job of working as a team to solve the problems presented in the activity, including Joe.

However, two executives spent most of the time arguing and tearing down the ideas of the rest of the group (and slamming the direction of the company). The CEO witnessed these antics and could clearly see what was holding them back from being a team. Within a month, these two leaders were no longer with that particular company. (It turns out that teambuilding exercises aren’t just fun and games after all.) It was a turning point that resulted in a strong team being formed, the launch of their improvement initiative, and years of strong business performance.

John Dyer is president of the JD&A – Process Innovation Co. and has 28 years of experience in the field of improving processes. He started his career with General Electric and then worked for Ingersoll-Rand before starting his own consulting company. Dyer can be reached at (704)658-0049 and [email protected]. Linked In Profile: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/john-dyer/0/646/75a/ He is on Twitter: @JohnDyerPI.

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