Continuous Improvement -- Follow The Black Sheep

Dec. 21, 2004
Lean recruiter seeks leaders who can transform companies.

There's a scene near the end of the movie "Animal House" when Bluto, the mildly deranged character played by John Belushi, tries to get his Delta House fraternity brothers to rise up and fight Dean Wormer's final injustice. He gives his version of a pep talk, "Did you say 'over'? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" He eventually runs out of the room screaming. Nobody follows. It's every manager's nightmare. You lay out your best case, explain why the old ways aren't going to work anymore, present a compelling argument for what needs to be changed, and literally or figuratively run out of the room. Nothing happens. Everybody quietly goes back to work and keeps on doing what they've always done. Someone else makes the same case -- just as it happens in the movie -- and the impossible at least becomes worth trying. This ability to get other people to follow separates smart, technically competent managers from the most effective and successful operational leaders. It requires a special personality, exactly the type of personality Lin Stiles looks for. In the early 1990s Stiles founded one of the few management-recruiting firms that specializes in placing executives with lean manufacturing expertise. It's a niche that has afforded him a unique perch from which to view the process-improvement strategy as it has evolved within American industry. Today he says manufacturers are less concerned about finding people with specific industry knowledge, perfect academic qualifications and a "corporate" mindset, than they once were. Of course, experience with the lean tools -- how to go about reducing set-up times, streamlining material flow and implementing workcells -- is critical. As is a basic understanding of change management. But when evaluating executive job candidates, his clients really expect to see a demonstrated ability to transform an operation. "There's a big difference between doing this at the lower level -- putting the pieces together -- and the second part, motivating people and driving change in the organization," says Stiles. The more enlightened companies prize this proven change-making ability above industry-specific knowledge, which can be learned. Some firms even prefer industry outsiders, people free from the burden of experience, who can more easily see and question all of the wasteful activities within an operation. "Find me a vice president," Stiles hears from his clients. "I don't care if he has a college degree or not, but I need someone who has proven he can make change. I need someone who can look at this place and say, 'Hey, you guys are doing it all wrong.'" What personality traits do these lean manufacturing leaders share? Many haven't always been the stars they are today. They were the black sheep in their companies, the type of people who chafe at corporate authority and conformity. People who developed, through curiosity and personal initiative, a wildly divergent vision from the traditional batch-oriented approach to manufacturing for how their operations could run, who were then able to push, cajole and drag people along to make it happen. They've become non-stop proselytizers for a better way of doing things, and getting better results. Demand for such people always exceeds supply. Given the choice though, even non-conformists will follow the path of least resistance. No one goes looking to bang his head against a wall. When looking for a new challenge, Stiles says these people won't go near a company where the commitment to change isn't there. Other than personal magnetism, there are reasons why people follow such leaders. Despite a difficult economy that has caused some managers to revert to old "be happy you've got a job" ways, the days of the autocratic leader are over. People follow because they trust you, they think they might learn something, and they know they aren't going to be bossed around. Wherever you're going, they know they will have a role to play. It's up to you to show them the way. Just try to do a better job than Bluto. David Drickhamer is IndustryWeek's Editorial Research Director. He also coordinates the IW Best Plants award program.

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