Continuous Improvement: Manager or Leader?

Nov. 10, 2010
Your company may have many managers but without leaders, your continuous-improvement efforts may be doomed to failure.

For many people in industry, obtaining a master's degree in business administration has been instrumental in their career achievements. However, most MBA curriculums teach people how to be managers, not how to be leaders. The problem is that almost all continuous-improvement efforts require leaders, not managers.

What's the difference? Managers are taught how to manage things like cash, capital investments, inventory, production schedules, new product development, distribution channels, and sales and marketing plans. Leaders are that rare breed who know how to work with a team of people to achieve great things, often requiring people to make changes and do things that are outside their comfort zone.

Think about professional sports and the coaches who direct the teams. Are they managers or leaders? Sure the organization has managers who manage things like the stadium, uniforms, exercise equipment, and schedules. They have trainers who take care of establishing exercises and their schedules, address minor injuries and generally oversee the physical condition of the players. But the people we hear the most about in these organizations are the coaches, and their area of expertise is leadership, not management. They are the leaders of the team, and it's up to them to provide the game plan for the players, understand the strengths and weaknesses of each player and motivate the team to make changes and to accomplish things that many of the players view as very challenging, if not impossible. How different is it in business where you are trying to get your team to make changes with your CI programs? Many of your team members are uncomfortable with these changes and many can't imagine that it's even possible to accomplish what you are asking them to do.

Leaders are experts in working with people, not things, and it's not a subject that is taught in most academic environments. A major exception is in our military academies where young men and women are coming out of high school and four years later are expected to lead a team in the military, often in combat. I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit West Point, the Air Force Academy and Annapolis with the Association for Manufacturing Excellence Champions group. We spent a couple of days at each institution seeing how they teach leadership to these young folks so they can successfully lead their teams in very difficult and potentially life-threatening circumstances. At these service schools, they have a very clearly defined curriculum and methodology for teaching their students this rather esoteric skill called leadership, but finding these types of programs elsewhere is very rare.

While leading a CI effort requires a thorough knowledge of the CI tools and techniques, as well as an in-depth knowledge of the process being modified, this is not a management issue. It's a leadership issue, and many managers who engage in CI activities are woefully unprepared to be good leaders. Many of the business executives whom I have talked to have indicated that leadership is a critical problem in their organization, and the lack of these skills is hindering their organization's ability to grow and be successful. There are a number of programs available in the marketplace (Google leadership development training) that teach these skills. They include a very unique one in which the AME Institute has collaborated with Arizona State University to develop a hands-on leadership development program to teach, coach and mentor people in these critical skills in their work environment. The important issue is that rising stars within an organization who may have excellent management training and skills also need to focus on obtaining the same expertise in leadership -- a whole different set of capabilities.

Think of management as the efficient and productive use of things and leadership as the ability to get extraordinary results from teams of people. It takes both to achieve success in organizations, but the academic programs teaching management usually don't address the leadership skill development that so many organizations need and the great organizational leaders have learned, often by the school of hard knocks through trial and error.

Ralph Keller is president of the AME Institute and former president of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence.

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