The Certainty Of Ambiguity

Most of the manufacturing executives I talk with admit to anxiety with the ambiguity of what it takes to make drastic improvements in operations. Unfortunately, continuous improvement by itself is not always enough. If transforming operations, and your business as a result, were a 5 or 10 step plan that worked for every situation, I would certainly share it.  It is not.  Here is what I can tell you for sure about radical change.

If you’re not fully committed to becoming remarkably better, don’t try.  Creating a new vastly improved future requires focus, energy, leadership and political capital. It requires going far beyond your comfort zone and much more than hope.

You will need to identify the very few top priorities for creating your extraordinary change.  Do you need a 50 percent reduction in time-to-market, a 35 percent reduction in product cost, a supply chain that is technologically advanced?

An accurate assessment of current capabilities and resource commitments is also in order.  A strategy for education, training, concurrent activities, and resource management that reflects those is necessary.  Aligned views on risk tolerance and speed is imperative. Specifics depend on where the organization is currently, and where it needs/wants to go.

Your leadership team must develop competency within ambiguity, within mistakes, and within the learning process. That means confidence despite not having all the answers, and despite trying a logical step but in doing so realizing how little about the process is actually known.  It means taking the time to truly understand how and why we were wrong.

Leadership–formal and informal–is also required to help the rest of the organization become equally comfortable with uncertainty.  The only way to do this is to, as Nike says, just do it.  Few of us learn to drive by just getting behind the wheel and pressing the accelerator. We learn from someone experienced.  When creating an entirely new future for your operations, working with a trusted advisor who can anticipate and navigate the rapids only makes sense. Based on your answers to important questions along the way and that person’s observations and experience, she will warn you of impending dangers. The goal is to move as quickly as possible without shattering the organization.  Why would anyone want to go slower?  And moving faster is disastrous, imploding the company.

Your leadership team will have to become involved, like the pig, not the chicken. No, you won’t be slaughtered.  But you can’t just drop by once in a while to cluck about the importance of big changes. Meaningful involvement is required of every team member.  If you allow some to sit arms-crossed on the sidelines after the first year, it’s time to find out why they care so little about the future of the organization.

Your leadership team will have to make significant changes.  Radical performance improvements don’t spring forth from dabbling by designees. Changes will likely involve different methods of getting information, and caring about different more valuable information.  It means mastery of management systems that provide awareness of daily activities and problems, being and holding others accountable, focus on priorities, and consistency. It may mean a step back to position the organization for a giant leap forward.

Does this lists of absolute certainties in accomplishing radical improvement scare you?  If so, look again at why you want to make radical improvements to become among the best.  Then decide which view is less frightening for the future of your organization.

As published in AME’s Target Online