Shingo Guiding Principle: Lead with Humility

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For me, this is one of the most critical principles within the Shingo Model for leaders to grasp at a core, personal level. The power contained within this principle is, I believe, the source of real cultural change within organizations. Leaders, particularly in the technical and compliance-based environments where I spend a lot of my time, often arrive in their position through their technical credentials and process knowledge. Suddenly, sitting now in a position where they must influence wider teams and allow them to grasp and understand their own reality in relation to process performance, these leaders default to conversations that tell, inform, or suggest how things need to be done. There may well be times when this is required, but long-term it is not sustainable. Often leaders forget, in their ‘telling’, that the logic awareness and understanding may not be as current as it needs to be. Technology changes, attitudes change, and for some weird reason the people we often deal with get younger and younger!

Setting the Scene:

The power of the principle, Lead with Humility, was revealed to me during a leadership and coaching session I was asked to support within a multinational pharmaceutical business. During workshops with the leadership team, we grounded the need to focus on behaviors as the basis for sustainable enterprise excellence. We reviewed the potential of the tiered management system to enable key behaviors and conversations. These behaviors and conversations could be tuned into by the leadership team during their leader standard work activity as a key system within the business. All good.

The team began to develop their ideas of what ideal behaviors would look like and the conversations they might hear to indicate whether the tiered management system was either enabling or disabling these ideal behaviors. All good again.

Great dialogue and enthusiasm developed within the team as they practiced their coaching skills around systems and ideal behaviors. Over time, coaching confidence grew, and they began to integrate coaching activity to their leader standard work and gemba. Much of this was observed so that feedback could be given to the leader.

The Weight of History:

However, as with many organizations, there was a weight of history. In the past, behaviors were not so good. To be fair, many of the serious offenders at the leadership level had left the organization, but the scars still remained. Deep scars. At the front-line level, trust in a ‘new’ focus on behaviors and principles, while generally welcomed, was fragile. Communication and engagement had taken place at multiple levels. Many managers and leaders had attended standard training programs and welcomed the core concepts that a shift toward a behavioral-based focus would bring. But a healthy level of skepticism and ‘we will see’ remained.

A Day of Reckoning and True Change:

And, so a day came. I was joining one the most enthusiastic leaders for a morning of go and see to observe coaching activity at the frontline. As is often the case with consultancy, you build trust, become familiar and part of the team. I joined the leader in the morning, and we set out the plan of go and see for the morning. We spoke of the behaviors and systems we would look for, and again grounded ourselves in why these behaviors were important for the organization.

We set off and joined several tiered meetings, and the progress went well. By late morning, we were visiting a team that, while adopting and implementing the tiered process, its maturity was not at the level of other departments. The team was struggling with performance. Many of the issues were due to suppliers and legacy process problems.

As we listened to the supervisor walk through the area and subsequently review the tier board, I could see a change in behavior of the senior leader. This was an area that had reported to him previously, and it had performed better in the past. Not great, but certainly better than the trends that were being presented. As the conversation continued, additional team members gathered to the board.

The leaders began with an effective enquiry into the issues, but quickly reverted to the old style of technical, on-the-spot trouble shooting and finger pointing. It became heated, not red hot, but warmer than comfortable. Suddenly in mid-sentence, the leader stopped the conversation, lowered his head and looked over at me. He paused and walked away to the amazement of the team. There was silence in the group. After a few moments, the leader returned to the group, and in one of the most contrite apologies I have ever witnessed, explained to the team how sorry he was for the way he had just spoken to the them. He explained that he had fallen into the ‘old way’ and that is exactly why the team was struggling with the issues they faced that day. He said that this was not the way to move the business forward. The team was completely taken aback and openly accepted the apology. Other team members were asked to stop their work and join the conversation. It was a powerful moment.

Way Forward:

The leader, through his humble request for forgiveness, opened the stage for a more open conversation with the team. It was a moment of reset, with the leader committing to a more supportive role in helping the team to resolve these long-standing issues. They were now the experts and closest to the issues. Focused projects where initiated to deal with supplier issues. Process expertise was sought to review the legacy process validation issues and get them resolved through effective problem solving. Issues were resolved with massive learning and engagement with the team. The leader played a supporting role, helping with roadblocks reprioritizing and checking-in with the team at regular scheduled intervals. Things got better.

To the credit of this leader, not only did he seek forgiveness from the team, but he also recounted the story to his peers within a coaching workshop. Again, it was a powerful moment.

“Improvement is only possible when people are willing to acknowledge their vulnerability and abandon bias and prejudice in their pursuit of a better way.”

It is only when leaders cede their perceived power, do they enable powerful organizations.

This article is written by John Quirke, Partner and Global Life Science Sector Lead at S A Partners