Leadership Essentials for Process Professionals

“One does not manage people — the task is to lead people. And the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of each individual.”

Peter F. Drucker

Whether you’re trying to make adjustments within a small business unit that only involves a handful of people or whether you’re trying to roll out process standardization across several global offices in a change that affects the working lives of thousands, a very small part of your success is contingent on successfully mapping, modelling, and optimizing processes.

Any initiative or project you undertake involves leading and facilitating groups of people. Continuous improvement is something that you do WITH people, not something that you do TO people.

So just what combination of skills and approaches do you need to lead process excellence successfully?

This compilation of articles — looks at effective leadership attributes and skills for leading process excellence.

What are the top personal qualities you need to be effective in your job? What are the strategies and questions you should employ in the pursuit of process improvement and operational excellence? Experienced practitioners share their thoughts on what it really takes.


Process improvement has been around for a long time; the name and methodologies have changed either through assimilation or reinvention. However, whatever banner your process improvement program flies under, you can expect one constant: the challenge of delivering your results.

There are many different reasons why an improvement team might fail to deliver expected results, but the determining factor, in my opinion, is the approach used by the person leading the team. The leader of an improvement team has many responsibilities including keeping the team motivated, on task and ultimately delivering positive results. What the leader is not responsible for is accomplishing all that they have been charged with by themselves.

Think that your role as leader of process improvement involves being a super hero? Think again!

Whether newly trained in a continuous improvement methodology or a seasoned professional the success of your team depends on how you approach your leadership role. While there have been countless books, seminars, webinars etc. on team leadership, success depends on the leader’s ability to create an environment where their team can flourish and achieve success. From my personal experience there are five things to remember when leading teams focused on delivering operational excellence. They are: Perspective, Respect, Humility, Active Listening, and avoiding the “Last Place” syndrome.

Quality #1: Perspective

As an improvement team leader it is imperative to identify the ideas and facts behind your perspective at the onset of an event or project — these are the ideas and facts known to you regarding a specific location, situation, process, person or team. When coalesced these ideas and facts will form the viewpoint that you adopt prior to, during and following the completion of an improvement event or project. It is possible for your perspective to change based on new facts or ideas which were unavailable or unrecognized when the earlier perspective was formed.

Then take it a step further and ask yourself “Does my team have the same perspective?” If you cannot honestly answer that question with a resounding “Yes”; then you are missing some key facts and ideas around the task that has been assigned your team. Here are a few tips to ensure that you maintain the proper perspective as a Green, Black or Master Black belt leading an improvement team.

Remember that it is a team effort and requires collaboration. Continuous improvement is something that you do WITH people, not something that you do TO people.

Maintain an open mind about the process being evaluated, the people operating in the process and your team members.

Ask questions, more specifically ask open ended questions that lead to a sharing of knowledge. This will sow the seeds for successful brainstorming sessions down the road. A second goal of asking questions is to gather additional facts and ideas which you will use to validate and/or adjust your perspective.

Facilitate and guide your team towards achieving the objective. Leadership is not about doing the tasks for them; it is about developing their process knowledge and leadership skills.

Quality #2: Respect

As an outsider to the process you will see opportunity for improvement that has been missed by those working within the current process. What will not be as readily apparent to you will be all of the improvements that have already been made to an existing process. Those people that have been with the organization have a vested interest in that organization and its continued success. In some cases they were part of the group who initially founded the organization and have helped it grow into its current structure and market position. While the processes they created may not be the most efficient in your eyes, remember all of the blood, sweat and tears that has gone into creating them. They will be understandably proud of their accomplishments and appearing on scene as a superhero to save them from their wasteful process will establish a barrier between yourself and those who live and operate in the process everyday. When you look in the mirror you will see yourself as a hero, they will see you as the villain. This reputation will become more and more engrained in your colleagues eyes the longer you operate in this manner, ensuring that you will be fighting and uphill battle with each subsequent process that you try to improve.

Some of the negative consequences of this approach to continuous improvement are:

  • Information Quality
  • Information Quantity
  • Data Integrity
  • Improvement Implementation
  • Improvement Sustainment
  • Continuous Improvement Program Viability
  • Personal Growth and Advancement

Quality #3: Humility

While many would prefer a leader who is humble enough to recognize the potential in their colleagues, peers and subordinates; there is also as desire to have a leader who is confident and strong and conveys an ability to truly ‘lead’ an organization to success. In the case of a person who is leading an improvement team, the humility that is important is in reference to terminology, tools and skills.

As an improvement team leader your approach should be such that when you communicate with your team you are utilizing terminology, tools, and explanations in such a manner that they can clearly understand what is being stated.

Terminology — Every profession has its own unique language that sets it apart from other professions. Continuous improvement is no different. The words and phrases used in Lean, Six Sigma, Theory of Constraints, TRIZ, etc. have means that are unique to the process improvement environment. Every Green and Black belt knows this to be true based on the number of times that they have been required to explain that their ‘belt’ referred to a level of process improvement training and not to a new martial arts program that was being started by the organization.

An example from my personal experiences occurred while I was learning to use Minitab for statistical analysis. I was having some difficulty in transferring the data from Microsoft Excel into Minitab when my Master Black belt showed me how to concatenate the data so that it would be easier and much faster to load the data into Minitab. I was very excited by what I had learned and was quick to begin using “Concatenate” while talking with my team regarding the project that we were working on. I was also a little dumbfounded the next day when only half my team members showed up again for our meeting. I learned a lesson that day not just in communication, but in humility as I worked to recruit additional team members for the vacancies that I had created. Be confident and knowledgeable enough to lead your team without alienating them by acting like you are above them based on your personal knowledge, terminology and skills.

Quality #4: Active Listening

Learning to interpret and understand non-verbal communications, seeking and achieving clarification of what you heard and engaging in an exchange of information are the foundation of active listening. It means you hear more than what another person or group of people is saying verbally.

While you may feel that your training and/or experience with process improvement establishes you as the expert, it does not mean that you are a subject matter expert in the process that is being evaluated and improved. Those people who live and operate within that process on a daily basis, along with the managers who have supervised the process are the SME’s. If you do not hear what is being communicated and seek to ensure that you understand the implications of what is being said and not said you are likely to make a mistake in evaluating the process. This means that any improvement which is made will not have been built on a solid foundation and could ultimately lead to an improved process that is worse than the one you started with on day one of your event/project.

When your situation is such that you are a new hire or an external consultant working with an organization for the first time it is imperative that you engage in active listening. The people that you will be working with not only have more indepth knowledge regarding the process or processes being evaluated, they also possess a lot of valuable information regarding the organization. Their experience and longevity will be extremely valuable and in most cases they are willing to share all that they know with you, provided that you take the time to listen to what they have to say.

The following is a partial list of some methods that you can use to engage in active listening with your team members.

Repeat back what you hear in a conversation. It is important to remember that you do not need to repeat what was said to you word for word. Instead look to summarize it in terms that you are comfortable with in conversation.

Pay attention to the non-verbal as well as the verbal communication. Studies have shown that the greatest percentage of information is communicated using nonverbal means.

Start each meeting with a short review of the team charter and goals, what has been accomplished to date and what the objectives are for the meeting. This gets everyone on the same page with a solid baseline moving forward.

Understand cultural differences. Whether the differences derive from a specific industry or they are based on geographic location, it is essential to understand the nuances of communicating in different cultural environments. Do the research using any number of websites available.

In addition I would encourage you to evaluate your listening style; one method available for this is “Learning to Listen” from the HRDQ Research & Development Team. (www.hrdq.com). Take the time to evaluate your listening skills, develop a plan to improve on them, as needed, to ensure that you are maximizing your communications as a process improvement team leader.

Quality #5: “Last Place”

Each of us has been somewhere else before starting our current role. It may have been another position within the same organization; or it could be the same position with additional responsibilities that are a result of recent training (i.e. Lean Six Sigma Green Belt). We may be changing from one region of the world to another, changing organizations, career paths or simply starting our careers following school. As you begin to lead your process improvement team it is imperative that your references to your “Last Place” are limited to those instances when they will truly add value to the subject matter being discussed/applied.

Continual references to how your last place operated will have a negative effect on your relationship with your colleagues and with your team members. No one that I have ever meet enjoys continually hearing about how your last organization accomplished value stream mapping, 5S, barrier removal, presentations, training, etc. They want to have the discussion focused on the organization of which they are all members. The focus needs to be on the here and now with a smattering of historical experiences used for emphasis, benchmarking, case studies, etc. Again, the key is a smattering such that when you refer to a previous experience, everyone you’re a communicating with continues to listen vice tuning you out.

Working in an office of professionals it was interesting to watch as a new mid-level manager began work with the organization. In less than a week, this person’s continual reference to their last organization had resulted in significant change within the office.

Subordinates began to complete this person’s sentence when they would start out with “When I was at__________ we would do…..”

Some members of the office would keep tic marks on a white board tracking how often their new manager made a “Last Place” reference.

Members of the office would get up to leave for a meeting or appointment that may or may not exist.

Information flow upstream to the manager decreased on a daily basis as more often than not a subordinate would avoid speaking with them simply to avoid another story about the managers “last place.”

For many of us we have had great experiences in other positions and organizations; hold on to them for what they are and what they represent. However, remember as you move forward that you are in your current position and/or current organization for a reason, use references to your “last place” sparingly as a means of emphasis or to covey clarity on a difficult subject. Always conclude the reference by bringing it back to the current situation and as time moves on develop new experiences from your current position/organization to replace those from the “last place.”

Process Improvement is an exciting time for many people within an organization; we have new knowledge and are energized to tackle the challenges facing our organization. We want to demonstrate our abilities and reward the leadership decision that resulted in our training. However, for others within the organization the process of changing will be difficult, their workplace will be going through upheaval and they may experience frustration in their day-to-day efforts. The process improvement experts are an easy target for these frustrations and need to be mindful of how their approach to their supervisors, peers and colleagues will affect the organizations overall goals. Remembering to maintain perspective, respect those whom you are interacting with, demonstrating humility, engaging in active listening and limiting “Last Place” references will go along way to a successful outcome from leading your first improvement team as a newly trained Green or Black Belt.


Over the years I have led, reviewed, analyzed or taken part in many improvement programs, both in my roles for companies and as an EFQM (European Foundation for Quality Management) Assessor. Looking back on my time I have tried to think of the crucial questions that I would suggest leaders ask themselves before starting on their journey (first hint!)

I am not offering this as a panacea for preventing all problems but I do believe in the carpenters idiom ‘measure twice, cut once’ and therefore propose these as some ‘measuring time’ before you start cutting!

Question 1: Do I really think that I can change the world in 3 months?

‘Of course I do, how do you think I came to be in charge of this facility, business etc? I make things happen and this initiative will be no different!’

History tells us that whilst short term actions can lead to some gains, in the world of sustained continuous improvement then it is the long term strategies that keep delivering.

Reviewing failed change initiatives (and there are thousands to choose from!) will all show that unrealistic expectations of what can be delivered in a short time leads to lack of continued focus and active participation. It seems more to be ‘well that didn’t work — what quick fix can we try next?

Reviewing successful change programs (and they are out there if you look!), shows that If you truly want to develop and embed continuous sustainable improvement then stop thinking of weeks or months and start thinking about how you will support and sustain it over the coming years.

Question 2: Do I really have the time/interest/determination to see this through in the long term?

‘What do you mean do I have the time interest and determination to see this through? I will tell my team what is expected, delegate to them and sit back and wait for the improvements or benefits to flow’.

Any serious review of failed change initiatives shows that the number 1 cause of failure is a lack of focused and active support from senior management. With all of the other pressures on leaders/managers from day to day pressures there is a constant threat of putting improvement on the back burner.

Using the quadrants of time from Stephen Covey’s excellent book, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, it is clear that continuous sustainable improvement is firmly in quadrant 2 — important but not urgent. Therefore, unless it is constantly reviewed, nurtured and proactively supported then your improvement initiative will quickly fade into the background as you continue to focus on quadrant 1 — urgent and important (fire fighting)

Question 3: Have I got the right people with the right skills, tenacity and time to lead this activity across the business?

‘Of course I have, they have all been hand picked to ensure that they can deliver to tight deadlines and do as they have been told’

Another one of the crucial elements of effective implementation of change is ensuring that you have the right blend of skills and abilities in your team to meet all of the required needs. Thinking about the skills set out by Belbin, it is clear that having only one set of characteristics in your team is a recipe for real problems. As someone who has had the experience of working with a senior management team (in a previous company) where 6 out of the 7 team members were Shapers (highly motivated — and opinionated — task leaders) then I can tell you that is a real eye opener in how not to get things followed through!

In your team you will need a senior champion who has the vision, character and abilities to support the initiative through all stages/phases of the program. It is highly likely that they will need to be full time on this program if you really mean to succeed. They will not be someone who it will be comfortable to spare but is likely to be one of your key players.

Many organizations delegate this key role to someone who is ‘spare’ at the moment or just add this role to their already full work life. Either way, don’t expect much success — again, history tells us that this is a clear path to failure.

Underneath this champion will be several other roles, experts, trainers, facilitators etc — all of whom will need to be identified, trained, released from other tasks and supported. However, without the Champion they will be rudderless and likely to expend lots of energy, enthusiasm and resources in delivering little.

Question 4: How will I ‘sell’ this to both the leadership team and the troops?

‘All the leadership team wants to hear is how fast we can deliver benefits so that is what I will tell them. If I start trying to explain how long this is going to take and how much investment we will need to make then they will just switch off’

‘All the ‘troops’ want to hear is what they will get out of it so I will exaggerate the benefits and play down the hard work that will be needed — they will be happy then’

Hopefully from the previous questions it is really sinking in just how hard it is to make sustained continuous improvement work. There is little point in setting out with false expectations — both for the leadership team and the troops. The initiative needs to be openly and honestly discussed:

 What will the journey will look like?

 What sorts of time scales are involved?

 What issues can be expected along the way?

 What is the level of commitment from the organization?

 What is expected from everyone?

 What benefits can be expected — and when in the program?

 Does the organisation really mean business or is this just another ‘quick fix’?

 What will the organisation and its people look like at the end of each phase (remembering that there is no end to this journey)?

Question 5: What happens when the going gets tough and I have other priorities to deliver on?

‘It must be understood that our first priority is to get our deliveries out of the door — if we have to cancel or postpone some meetings or activities then that is just what happens’ or ‘Yes this initiative is important but it cannot be allowed to interfere with our ‘normal’ business. Our people will need to understand that the leadership/management team have other priorities and will therefore not always be able to make these meetings/sessions’.

There is a reason that the EFQM Excellence Model has Leadership as its first criteria. Again, countless improvement initiatives have failed because the organization sets out to do them ‘when we have time’, or are just bolt them onto the back of everyone’s other day to day duties.

Back to point 4 — realistic and sustainable expectations supported by real plans, programs and active involvement from the management/leadership

Question 6: Have I properly researched why 98% of improvement initiatives fail (lack of focused and consistent leadership)?

‘I’m a busy person; I don’t have time to read/review this type of material — that’s what I employ a Quality Manager to do and then just tell me the important bits’

Hopefully we have covered this in the above questions — if it isn’t clear then I haven’t done my job very well!

Question 7: Have I thought through the daily behaviours necessary from myself and the leadership team to make sure that the initiative succeeds?

‘We really mean business this time. We will have kick off sessions, presentations. I have ordered lots of banners, posters and mugs so that nobody is in any doubt that we mean business.

People believe what they see on an on-going basis. People will only be convinced when they see sustained good behaviours and active involvement from the management/leadership team.

Many organizations have visions, values and stated positive behaviors to follow. As an EFQM Award Assessor for many years I always run focus groups in the organizations that I am assessing. I have yet to meet with any groups that are impressed by banners, mugs or banners — positive feedback is always about what they have seen or heard from their managers/leaders to actively support the initiative/programs.

I have a little phrase that sums up what I have seen in many organizations over the years with regards to the role out of improvement initiatives:

“Here comes another one. Keep your head down for the next few months and it will all go away just like all the previous initiatives as the leaders lose interest.”

So the message here is make sure you are prepared to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

As I said at the beginning of this article, I offer no panacea for successful improvement initiatives but hopefully what I have shared is some of my experiences of the questions you should ask before starting (and believe it or not many of the statements I have included I have heard along the way!).

I wish you good luck with your improvement journey.


“The principle aim [of leadership] is to help people do a better job, improving quality in everything,” says Hazel Cannon of the UK based Deming Forum. In this interview, Hazel Cannon discusses the importance of treating leadership as a skill or capability to be developed and recommends steps that process professionals can take do right now in their jobs to be more effective leaders.


Hazel Cannon: Yes, I think that’s true in some cases. People will have been trained in process skills or be experts in a particular discipline like Six Sigma, but not necessarily in the leadership and management skills or attributes. It’s an interesting phenomenon to me that many people are promoted because of their abilities in a previous job or project that they worked on. Somehow between the promotion letter on the Friday and sitting at the leader’s desk on the Monday, we expect them to understand the key issues and have developed the appropriate management skills to deal with their new position. That’s one of the first things that I think that we need to consider.

I also believe there’s a myth around the definition of true leaders and the belief that they’re born rather than made. That may be accurate when you think of some great historical characters, but while I believe the leaders of changing organisations do need some innate characteristics, I also believe that they need training and development in management skills and given guidance and mentoring in the necessary leadership attributes. I see that skills and attributes are slightly different things. The issue for me is that some organisations don’t even see leadership as a specific discipline or attribute that needs to be taught, developed and honed.


Hazel Cannon: Firstly, we need to recognise the difference between being involved in change and leading change. I think that many organisations involved in change or transformation provide process skills and models training, but they don’t see the need for leadership development in that particular skill set. In fact, in some organisations leadership selection and development is often handled in a different stream. Leadership is a skill that needs to be learned.

Secondly, many business skills are not teaching the leadership skills that are necessary for an organisation. Rather, they teach how to manage by the visible numbers. It’s interesting to stop for a moment and look at how the business school model developed.

In the brilliant book THE PURITAN GIFT, Will and Kenneth Hopper tell the history of how the chairman of General Electric in the late 50s, Ralph Cordiner, scoured the business schools looking for those that would provide him with so-called management experts. These were flexible managers who could present and argue the right numbers. Cordiner published a book called The New Frontiers in Professional Management, which, in fact, was an early manifesto for the business school counter-culture. This was the concept that wonderfully mobile “professional managers” trained in the classroom could manage any kind of business without really knowing very much about it.

Later, Dr Deming, the management guru who helped transform Japan, he described those business degrees as a cruel hoax. He said, quite curtly, that an MBA teaches managers how to take over companies and NOT how to run them.

In their book, the Hopper brothers stress the importance of domain knowledge — i.e. understanding the industry that you’re in. And they also talk about the essential components of effective leadership. They describe managers and leaders using three headings. The first one is a generalist, the person who genuinely possesses skills of general management. They are skilled in handling people — they’re the so-called “people persons” — who are required in any organisation. The second is a well rounded person who has a profound understanding of the sector they work in, and that gives them a sound foundation on which to develop and build their leadership skills. And the third is the “professional” who’s neither generalist nor rounded and lacks the domain knowledge and who principally sees the world of business in statistical and financial terms.

The fallacy that’s taught by many business schools is that management can still be learned in theory or abstract in almost an academic setting and then practised in any organisation. So, in fact, process professionals who understand the industry they’re in are really well placed to become effective leaders of organisations in the future.


Hazel Cannon: Well, there’s a wonderful educator and author, Peter Scholtes, and he uses a great example in his book, THE LEADER’S HANDBOOK. He talks about the magic eye art, I don’t know if you remember it. Initially, you see an array of colours and patterns. However, you can learn to focus your eyes in a special way that allows a three dimensional image to emerge from the array of colours. And suddenly, you’ll hear some people saying “look, it’s a car or it’s a giraffe” or whatever the photograph has hidden. And it depends on how you focus, but you need to learn to focus differently. So two people can look at the same picture and only one will see the colours on the surface, but the other will see something entirely different; the 3-D image that’s hidden deeper underneath the surface. And I think the same is true of leadership; you need to see different things, depending on which lens you focus through.

The ability to look at things differently is essential for leadership. Another way to describe how leaders can view an organisation is the way Dr Deming describes it. He says that when you work in a department, you need to be able to see your customers’ and suppliers’ perspective. But if you’re the manager, you maybe need to have the perspective that you see from a helicopter. And if you’re a chief executive in an international corporation, you may need the perspective that you might see from, say, a spacecraft.

So the skills and attributes for leading change in an organisation includes those developed and researched by Scholtes, whom I mentioned, Dr Deming, definitely the Toyota Corporation and those outlined by Ken and Will Hopper. Those methods have stood the test of time and they give you a sense of constancy of purpose. And that’s the one leadership commodity that I think is fairly scarce at the moment.

The need to search for the latest fad or quick fix is a huge industry and it’s highly distracting. But real process professionals recognise that it’s only through discipline, involvement, development and rigorous process that you’re going to achieve sustainable achievement. So constancy of purpose is essential to provide your longrange needs rather than short-term profitability, because that’s going to allow you to become competitive and to stay in business and provide jobs.


Hazel Cannon: I think there are probably six principle areas of competency that leaders can develop. I’ll outline them and then give you some more detail. The first is the ability to think in terms of systems. Then the second is you need to understand the variability of work and planning and problem solving. The third is to understand how people learn and develop and improve, so that leaders can ensure there’s true learning and sustainable improvement. Then we need to understand the psychology of change; why people behave the way they do. The fifth is to understand interactions and interdependencies. And then, finally, I think leaders need to give vision, meaning, direction and some kind of overall focus to the organisation.

So the principle aim is to help people do a better job, improving quality in everything: your product, your services, your employees, stakeholders, customers, suppliers. In fact, quality in all parts of your system. Leaders need to have the ability to think in terms of the big system and view the organisation as a flow diagram, flowing towards the customer rather than what you normally see, which is a hierarchical diagram. It’s important that they not only improve the system, but they learn to innovate. You need to be able to break down barriers between the departments and functions and maybe create opportunities where different areas work together to design and improve, not just to tackle problems. And one of the things that’s not really discussed very much, but which I think is very important, is that leaders need to be able to drive out the fear and anxiety that is rife in many organisations, especially today. They need to encourage effective multi-level communication, so everyone is informed and they can work cooperatively and optimise their efforts in the organisation. So helping people do a better job means that leaders need to understand the business that they’re in and what goes on in their organisations.

Good leaders need to use their power or authority and their knowledge and their persuasive power to streamline flows and remove the things that genuinely frustrate people and take the pride and the joy out of their jobs. I said they need to have the knowledge to help understand variability. It’s not just in things like parts and processes, it’s understanding that people learn in different ways and that people are different, so you have that profound understanding, then you can stop ranking and rating individuals in departments. You can ditch arbitrary targets and, quite frankly, meaningless statements like zero defect.

Process professionals who are leaders can then have that freedom to use their knowledge to ensure the systems and processes are in control — your objective then becomes to continuously reduce variation.

That’s what the Japanese car and electronic firms did. Once you understand that, you can move away from things like annual performance appraisal and have regular conversations with people, not to judge them, but to listen. And that gives you the agenda for the barriers that you need to remove. One of the big mistakes that General Electric made was to start ranking their people and then get rid of the bottom 10%. The trouble is that nobody knew if the bottom 10% were better or worse than people in other organisations. They lost all those employees. Cooperation must have gone right out of the window. So process professionals are well skilled in leading and teaching skills and methods for improvement and if we add some deeper knowledge of the psychology of people and the psychology of change, then we’ve got flexible learning organisations that are able to continually adapt and improve.

It’s not easy to create the levels of trust in an environment that will encourage freedom and innovation. You’ve got to allow for the possibility of failure. You have to understand the need for small-scale trials. And that’s another benefit that process professionals bring to the party — they understand some of the pointlessness of exhortations and poster campaigns and demanding zero defects or increased productivity without providing processes and methods to achieve what you want.

I also think the sign of a good leader is someone who can provide a compelling vision for the organisation that gives meaning and direction, so that people know where to focus. That way, they can enable the levels of cooperation and value added activity that I think is going to ensure success for the long-term, not just the short-term.


Hazel Cannon: I think if you’re talking about the skills are necessary, then probably many of them are still the same. However, the skills that are practised today have lost a lot of the tried and tested management skills that were around in the middle of the last century where leaders then rose through the ranks of organisations. They were developing their craft and they were being mentored by leaders.

If you read THE PURITAN GIFT by the Hoppers, many examples of this style can be found. For example, in the late 40s and early 50s, Procter & Gamble, introduced a preferred supplier policy, and that helped them reduce the variation in incoming products and ensured that the quality level of components delivered to the manufacturing department was good. They had an extensive training on the job programme, and encouraged people from research, design, sales, production to work together, as had many other companies during that era.

Counter that with the mid 80s when the American phone giant, AT&T totally failed to appreciate the potential of wireless technology. They’d hired a major consultancy to report on wireless communication prospects and the firm famously estimated that they reckoned that there would be fewer than a million cellular phones by the year 2000. I understand that by the time 2000 rolled around there 741 million cellular phones!

Of course, it’s really difficult for anyone to predict what will happen in the future, but in a company like AT&T, their employees would know more about the technology of communication than anyone else in the world. Why did the company’s new masters seek the advice of a firm of consultants? I think apart from indulging in what was, then, the latest managerial fad of outsourcing strategic decision making, the basic thing was that the company’s new masters were ignorant of the technology because they didn’t have the domain knowledge or a history in telecommunications.

Another thing that’s holding companies back is I think that people are often keen to introduce new systems but forget to cancel the old ones. The brilliant thinker, Russell Ackoff in his book ACKOFF’S FABLES, talks about how your people, your employees and your customers, actually, use their creativity to beat a system that’s no longer appropriate. And he cites Robert Townsend author of UP THE ORGANISATION, which recounts the story of how the British created a civil service job in 1803 that called for some poor soul to stand on the cliffs of Dover. He was supposed to ring a bell if he saw Napoleon coming. And you know when the job was abolished? In 1945!

So to be nimble and ready for the future, I think we need to identify three areas of activity. First, I think we need to identify the things that we do that were appropriate once but aren’t necessarily appropriate now, a bit like the example I’ve just given. And the second is the things that we do now that we need to continue. And the third is the things that we need to develop and do in the future. So discontinue the first, build on the second and introduce the third.


Hazel Cannon: Well, the first thing I’d suggest is the example of the magic eye pictures. Focus on the situation, not just looking at the surface, but using your knowledge as a lens to see past the surface in order to understand the potential patterns underneath. When you’re looking at improvements in specific areas, you’ll stop and consider the wider system. Understand that the changes you’re going to make will cause issues elsewhere. As every process professional knows, a system is made up of inter-related components and parts and you can’t change something in one place without understanding the potential implications.

A good example for me in the news right now is the proposal to increase, once again, the tax on fuel. Now, I know of several local small businesses whose employees are on basic wages and they have to travel maybe 40 or 50 miles a day to their place of work here. Even at the current price of fuel, several of them can’t afford to work here any more and have, in agreement with their employers, had to give up their jobs. And the reason they were travelling long distances is because there wasn’t suitable employment near where they lived. Now several of them are claiming unemployment benefit. So while the fuel tax is going to bring in additional revenue, significantly more revenue is possibly being paid out in unemployment benefit. So whilst one part of the system may take a win, another is taking a loss.

Regardless of the politics, I’m trying to demonstrate the system perspective. The fundamental question is; has the bigger system been optimised or not? Just think of the potential in your organisational systems; are the changes that you’re about to adopt optimising the whole system or are they creating a win in your area but an overall loss to the organisation?

Another great thing you could do is to generate some simple run-charts of your daily or weekly or monthly results and when you go to the next management meeting, don’t get involved in excuses and justifications as to why this month is 2% better or worse than last month or the same month last year. Why not produce your run-chart and show whether or not the results was reasonably predictable. You could also learn a lesson from AT&T’s mistake and listen to the people immersed in your work for ideas and opportunities rather than employing outsiders. And by listening and involving more people in the processes, you’re likely to delve deeper, understand more and have the added benefit of their involvement and support for the change.


For many of us being a process excellence leader is about mastering the tools and attaining certifications in the domain of six sigma (belts), lean (master), TOC (Jonah) etc. While these skills are required, what makes a successful process excellence leader is demonstrating skills and behaviours beyond the methods. It’s not the technical skills but the adaptive skills that makes a leader successful.

Here are what I consider to be the eight habits of effective Process Excellence leadership:

Habit #1: Ability to Zoom-in and Zoom-Out

Leaders need the ability to zoom-in and zoom-out: zoom-in to get into the core of an issue and zoom-out to see the larger picture. It’s essential to have this focus so that when looking at a problem (or an opportunity, as I like to call them), to understand the strategic imperatives of business and which processes need to change to make an improvement. You need to be able to quickly see how the details of individual processes connect up with the big-picture of the business. In everything that they do, leaders need to be system thinkers who see problem solving in the context of the larger business system and how this affects other parts of the business. This not only helps ensure that improvements in one area aren’t negatively affecting another, but also ensures that all process improvement work is supporting the strategic objectives of the business.

Ultimately, as I wrote in an earlier column — How to tell if you’re a process centric organization — leaders of process excellence should be able ascertain how the strategic and tactical efforts in process improvement will impact the overall performance of the company. A key deliverable of a leader is to script a holistic improvement roadmap for the next couple of years that enables a company to achieve its strategic vision.

Habit #2: Ability to engage

Process improvement is as much about convincing people to change as it is going around and changing processes. The ability to engage other people, therefore, is essential. Process Excellence Leaders must be able to persuade the CEO and other senior leaders to adopt process excellence practices for business improvement. This is about being able to sell performance-enhancement ideas to leaders based on the explicit & implicit needs of the business, and then being able to support them startto-finish to catalyze the changes necessary.

The key word here is “catalyze” which is about the business leader owning the deployment while the leader acts as a coach. Leaders of process improvement need to be comfortable both with C-level executives as well as teams at middle & junior management. Senior leaders look at him as a trusted partner while people at junior and middle management look at him as an inspirational leader who is able to motivate them to adopt process-practices for eliminating some of the deep chronic issues that they could be facing. The leader should be able to provide visibility to teams on how their efforts impact the strategic objectives of the company.

Habit #3: Ability to manage change

This is about treating a process excellence rollout as a change program and doing everything to make sure it sticks in the firm. It includes getting the organizations’ attention to the process excellence agenda, catalyzing the required sense of urgency and gaining true buy-in by winning over the hearts and minds of people.

The Process Excellence Leader does not keep the people who oppose the process agenda out of his way but proactively gets them to the table to understand their concern and even allows them to find holes in the way he is proposing the deployment. Leaders need to treat those who attack us with respect and engage with them to allay their concerns. We are able to successfully manage a wide-range of behaviours that oppose / raise doubts about the process agenda. One of endeavours of the leader should be to work with the CEO to build a change-ready company that is able to wade through the changes in the environment.

Habit #4: Ability to understand financials

Process Excellence leaders need to demonstrate to the business the financial value of the work the team is undertaking but also understand how process improvement work affects the financial of the company.

Leaders need to understand not just basic financial statements but also the relationship between them and the derived ratios. For example, if a cost-income ratio is a key metric tracked by top management in a bank, the leader works towards finding which processes can improve this ratio.

Conversely, if there are financial measures that top management should be tracking, but aren’t, the leader should be able to highlight this and argue why a particular measure is important and what impact process improvement will have on the measure.

Habit #5: Ability to Coach

The ability to help others become better is a key skill which leaders should master. We are in the business of not only improving processes but also helping to improve businesses. A key part of that is ensuring that we are building up capabilities and skills in others in the business. Leaders should be able to coach those in the process improvement team but also those who are not direct reports as well as peers and top management of the firm.

Habit #6:Ability to understand customers and spot trends

Ultimately, we’re in business because we have customers. When customers become the centre-stage of a process excellence endeavour the undertaking gains a greater magnitude of importance — everyone in the business can and should have a sense of how their role serves the end customer. A process excellence initiative can die when primarily targeted towards internally focused objectives such as cost cutting, efficiency gains, etc. while a process excellence journey is long lasting when it is designed around customers.

Leaders work towards improving the value delivered to the customer. We must work with other leaders in the company to design a suitable value proposition for the customer and make sure that each part of the business works in tandem to deliver the customer promise. We need to keep an eye on the emerging trends that impact customers and help the CEO to design a business-strategy with the customer at the centre.

Habit #7: Ability to embed capability

The real power of process improvement starts when business units have the skills necessary to make improvements and changes to their role.

Part of our role is to put ourselves out of a job by building capability and embedding required skills within business units so that they can pursue the process improvement efforts for enhancing the performance of the business. This includes making sure that best and brightest employees are involved in process improvement, teams get time to carry out improvement work and they get recognized for accomplishing business outcomes by using the power of process. Excellence in process excellence work needs to be made a criteria for career growth. Each of the business units and functions should have adequate number of change agents in improvement approaches such as Lean, Six Sigma, BPM, Triz, Small Group Activities, JIT etc.

Habit #8: Ability to guide teams on tools and techniques

A leader should be adept in the key improvement approaches and should be in a position to guide teams when required. While it helps to have deep knowledge in process improvement practices, you shouldn’t worry if you’re not a master of any of them. What is really required of leaders is the ability to ask the right questions and understand the technical output of teams. Remember, when the job of a leader is to engage and provide strategic inputs, it’s fine if the leader is a bit “tool deficient”. You need deep experience in change management.