Jan 11, 2017
Somewhere in my earlier career, I came across an idea that, with my slight revision, has stayed with me for years: “Great men and great women become great doing the things they don’t want to do, when they don’t want to do them.” Sometimes, the conditions preceding improvement are painful, and the practices needed to achieve the desired outcome difficult. The tasks and time may not be to our liking, but action is still required.
Leadership is critical in creating and maintaining a quality-producing environment. Many authors have written and continue to write about the importance of leadership in quality improvement efforts. So I will only focus on two important realities of management life, namely, that people leak and people stray.
It is not enough to simply admonish employees to do it right the first time. In fact, telling someone to do something very rarely, if ever, works — especially with something so critical as an ongoing concern for quality. Teaching is a much preferred course of action with plenty of time for questions and practice.
For some mysterious reason, people simply leak. That is, the full understanding of a concept or intent seems to dissipate over time. As a result, there needs to be a continual spoken and written emphasis with respect to improvement. The vocabulary needs to be part of everyday functioning and organizational behavior.
The example of cardio-pulmonary resuscitation training illustrates this point. Who would feel comfortable, if the need should occur, to perform CPR five years after the training? Who feels competent five months afterwards? To be a capable practitioner, one must engage in regular practice and refresher courses. Such ongoing training has to enter one’s life and become a life skill priority. Because people leak, they need to be refilled at regular intervals. In ideal circumstances, employees know of this phenomenon and seek to stay full on their own initiative.
Informing employees of the “whys” behind organization policy and requested courses of action curbs the leaking process and establishes mutual respect.
Just as it is part of the human condition to leak, so it is natural to stray from intended objectives and purposes. Again, it is the organizational leaders who must constantly return the organization to its intended mission.
The most unusual example of straying that I have observed occurred at an institution serving individuals with developmental disabilities. Walking through the campus, I passed many buildings. Almost everywhere I went, staff members were standing behind facility residents who were standing, spread-eagle, against the sides of the buildings. Arms spread and upright, legs far apart, the individuals were taking enforced “time-outs” as punishment for their behavior. The staff stopped short of actually frisking and handcuffing them — probably because they could not remember the list of residents’ rights (to be free from humiliation and restraint obviously weren’t among them). It was one of the most perverse sights I’ve ever witnessed.
Employees stray, and so do organizations. Goals are not hard to displace, and before too long, the organization is majoring in the wrong subjects. A committed leadership regularly brings the organization back when it strays.
A scene from the movie "The Little Buddha" provides an important insight into the task of maintaining the intended results in an organization. Siddhartha leaves his father’s kingdom and renounces material possessions and pursuits of the flesh. After six years of living with a group of ascetics in complete physical denial, he overhears a musician floating down the river instruct his students, “If you tighten the string too much, it will break; if you leave it too slack, you can’t play it at all.”
This observation reveals the wisdom of the middle way to Siddhartha — a balance between the physical and the spiritual. The ideal reason is neither too taut, nor too loose. It is the same in organizational environments; there must be just the right amount of tension on the structure and processes to deliver the highest quality services and supports.
The leader must know how and when to loosen or tighten the organizational strings in order for the sought-after outcomes to be accomplished. Organizational leaders must listen to the corporate instrument every day — a responsibility of great magnitude.