Driving Change With a Samurai Boss: The Power of the Team

<<Installment #2 continued from Driving Change with a Samurai Boss>>

“Everyone has access to capital and technology these days. All else being equal, the only competitive advantage we have is our team.”

–Japanese Plant Manager

The process of peddling our consulting services typically started with the yobi-chosa, a preliminary analysis of the client’s factory, or sometimes just a problematic production line. Keep in mind that the Japanese guys I worked with were wily old veterans with decades of experience in factories, while I was just a young pup trying my best not to look like an idiot. It never ceased to impress me when my boss would walk through a prospective client’s plant and, on the fly, determine how to improve productivity well into double-digit levels. This always got the client’s attention.

Once the client decided to use our services, we would request resources from the organization to be members of our improvement team. At the minimum we wanted a couple operators from the plant, ideally associates who could do basic math, were self motivated and most important, respected by their peers, the plant’s “informal leaders,” if you will. These resources would play a key role not only in helping us analyze and solve problems, but also would serve as our quasi-ambassadors for promoting change amongst their peers, and ideally convincing them that consultants weren’t evil. 

We also would request a manufacturing and/or industrial engineer along with a couple fabricators to avoid bottlenecks in building jigs, work stations, etc. And to ensure leadership was on board with all the changes coming down the pike, we insisted the Plant Manager and Production Manager become at least part-time members of our team. In retrospect, it was a “recruit-the-enemy” insurance policy for minimizing potential resistance to the changes we were driving. It was absolutely critical that we won over the key leaders to hit our targets, and good business practice to make them look like heroes in the process.

Our role was multidimensional. We were primarily teachers and project leaders, but when the drama hit the fan (and it always did) we could morph into counselors and babysitters. Our mission was to get our ragtag team of resources from different parts of the organization educated, trained and pulling in the same direction. (And for the record, they never disappointed us.)

But we wore whatever hat needed to be worn on any given day. And unlike traditional consultants we didn’t simply analyze our clients’ problems then hand them an action plan and walk away; we blended in with the employees, wore their company uniforms, shared an open workspace, socialized outside of work, and ultimately trained and guided them to improve their own company.

So as consultants we absolutely played a leadership role but were also working members of the team. And on all the projects we led, we were evaluated based on the results achieved by our team, an unambiguous data-driven deal that was impossible to bs our way through.

But we had one big advantage going for us, an endearing Japanese leadership trait that almost guaranteed hitting our targets: we didn’t mind rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty.

And that’s exactly what we’ll cover next–the importance of leading with dirty hands.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012

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