Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Importance of a Vision and Flexibility

As the world keeps increasing the rate of change while the barrier to entry into the market fades steadily away, many leaders today seem perplexed by the ability for some companies to go from success to success, adapting swiftly to the ever quickening changes in the market while never compromising themselves. When they study these companies, what they often miss is the idea and power of freedom within the ranks to improve and self organize themselves within the scope of a powerful shared vision that they are working towards. This isn't the vision statement drivel that so many companies produce and then ignore, or the command and control orders that get barked down the ranks that don't invoke or allow for thought and creativity. It is an overarching set of high level and far reaching goals that runs deeply throughout the blood and soul of a company. These goals should be very relevant to the industry the company is in. They must be espoused by the executives and be part of the values that they live and are guided by day to day. Finally, though most importantly, the vision needs to be both real and, at the same time, is so bold and far reaching as to be nearly impossible to achieve.

Taichi Ohno's one piece flow is one example of such a vision. Ohno professed the ideal of creating an environment of ultimate flow, where there were no batches and only what was purchased by the customer would be made. This is extremely difficult to do in manufacturing, especially in the vast complexity that exists within automobile manufacturing where Ohno worked. It also goes completely against the commonly held belief, and the beliefs within modern accounting, of optimizing through maximal utilization of factory capacity rather than optimizing on the flow of the pull from a customer. Yet the power was not solely contained within the vision itself. The workers in the trenches and their line managers had to internalize the vision. They did not wait for a list of orders of what exactly to do to come from above so that they could carry on like mindless drones, but instead organized and challenged themselves to use their own experiences and knowledge to continually look for ways to improve their area and the business in the direction of that vision.

The workers on the ground have a critical amount of understanding and control over what is going on. They also are the raw material that can be coalesced to a form that is far mightier and wiser than the traditional corporate structure made of a few brains and many mute and dumb hands. Without their alignment to a vision or a free hand in finding ways of improving towards the goal, progress will be extremely difficult. However, at companies such as Toyota (where Ohno hailed) and Honda, line managers create goals that lead towards the vision, while the employees are given leeway to achieve those goals in the best way they see fit. This allows for what Ikujiro Nonaka calls "reflection-in-action". It creates a world where the collective creativity of the employee base can be harnessed, opening up entirely new possibilities. Such flexibility moves the company away from rigid and less efficient structures and concepts that may have unknowingly become obsolete. It removes the unintentional inhibition of the flow of communication, experimentation and the development of new ideas by allowing for knowledge to flow and recombine in new ways across the organization. This flexibility of thought and structure also has the magic of providing room for new meaning for work and a feelings of ownership to develop for staff that not only helps the company but brings with it pride and a real buzz about work that can be felt on the shop floor.

The strategy of vision with flexibility exists and is the key to success in many other areas, from self organizing nonprofits, to open source projects, to much of the way the US Armed Forces works. It is enshrined in modern manoeuvre warfare, and the concept of decentralized command structures expects that rapid changing situations may out pace communications and create gaps in the knowledge within the chain of command might have. This thus puts the need for lower levels to understand overall intent and adjust themselves on the fly in the battlefield accordingly in order to ensure success. This doctrine is even more pronounced in the Marine Corps, Special Forces and other elite units where flexibility and dynamism from the men in the field is even more important, down to the expectation that they will be "T shaped people" that have many well rounded skills and can adapt immediately to new roles to fill in any gaps that develop as conditions change.

There are several characteristics that each of these types of organizations possess that aids them in their success. They each have a big vision that is professed by all members ("save wildlife", "create the ultimate operating system", "win the war"). They will have somewhat more defined missions and campaigns formed in the upper and middle ranks that lead in the direction of the big vision. Within those missions/campaigns, the people on the ground are able to work in a mesh and organize and change tact to adapt to changes and opportunities as that can be exploited as they develop to lead towards achieving the desired goal. Any lack of flexibility and/or deep understanding of intent and vision quickly gums up the gears. Nonprofits and open source projects fragment as people walk away from them, much like customers will walk away from a business that no longer meets their needs, while such failure in the armed forces is much more lethal. The natural reaction of many large organizations to this is often to become even more rigid and prescriptive, insisting upon tightly defined roles and handoffs that not only deter collaboration but go to further accelerate the feeling on the ground of a lack of ownership and control over their destiny. While work might seem to be progressing to management, the workers themselves become detached, leading to an even greater lack of response to change, greatly harming the organization's long term health and profitability.

The struggle to move away from the more traditional command and control structure that exists in most companies to such a new and different way is daunting and scary for many. The feeling of delivering orders and directly managing people is a bit like a security blanket that somehow feels more certain than simply guiding and coaching. It pushes organizations to trust their employees more and value their knowledge and intellect rather than insisting upon treating like mindless children that need to be told what to do. It also forces thought leadership, and for leaders to step up and provide a far reaching strategic vision rather than spend all their time in the instant feedback of the tactical. Until leaders accept their new role and free and leverage the collective wisdom of their staff, they will doom the organizations that they lead to slow and cumbersome mediocrity, capital destruction, and gradual irrelevance.