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How to Help Employees Fly

In the last issue of Management Matters, we described the perils of being the head buffalo as detailed in the management classic, Flight of the Buffalo. James Belasco's and Ralph Stayer’s (CEO of Johnsonville Foods) book posits that when herds of buffalo migrate they are led by a head buffalo. Loyalty to this leader is the key value in the herd. Thus, members of the herd take orders from the head and wait for the head buffalo to lead them. But the head buffalo must stop to rest sometimes, or stop to eat (akin to a manager being out of the office), whereupon the entire herd comes to a stop.

However, when geese migrate, they fly using a “V” formation. As the lead goose, which bears the greatest burden of wind resistance and drag, becomes fatigued, the geese will change positions so that a different goose leads, and the former leader can draft behind the others. In this way, geese can migrate very long distances without ever having to stop.

Strong beliefs in interdependence and responsibility guide the flock, enabling it to accomplish ends effectively and efficiently. Flight of the Buffalo is a journey of two people shedding their "head buffalo" mindsets in order to enable people to achieve far greater results.

Flight of the Buffalo provides some great advice on changing your leadership mindset, but it also provides some specific examples of how to create and employ systems as part of planning and monitoring. Effective management systems provide performers with the focus, direction and autonomy to accomplish their required outcomes. Let’s look at some of these examples -- systems that are underappreciated elements of the management model and essential tools for people seeking to "lead more like geese."

The most effective managers are able to gain commitment by assigning and getting people to accept responsibility for significant outcomes. An essential component, however, to getting required results is for the manager to also employ the right systems as part of both the planning and monitoring process (see figure below). Belasco and Stayer provide some great examples of how they employed systems that allowed them to let go of others' work while still providing them focus and direction.

At Johnsonville Foods, they had a popular sausage product that was packaged into guaranteed 12-ounce trays. A number of these trays, however, would go out heavier than 12 ounces because of slight variations of each link put on the tray. Over time, these excesses added up to substantial losses. Typically, the manager owns the responsibility for this problem rather than those actually stuffing the sausages (stuffers). As the head buffalo, the author would have tried to solve the problem. Instead, he asked the performers -- in this case the stuffers -- what they needed to be able to decrease the tray weight overages.

It turns out that these people didn't know how much each tray weighed because the trays were weighed and wrapped in another room. That system was changed, based on the input from those doing the work, so that the critical performers had the information in real time. With the new system providing instant feedback on weights, the giveaway from excess weights was reduced 25% in three days.

Information must also flow back to the person in charge as a way of monitoring. One system they employed at Johnsonville was “zero-based administration” where at the end of each fiscal year all processes, procedures, and forms automatically ceased. Someone had to make the case to have the procedure reinstated. By the way, 75% never came back.

The authors describe the "5/15 report" as a way to monitor progress towards goals and to identify unneeded bureaucracy. In this weekly report, which takes 5 minutes to read and 15 minutes to write, the performer addresses three questions: What did I accomplish this week? What remains to be done next week? What needs to be fixed/changed/eliminated? (p. 279). While this helps eliminate time-wasting procedures, it also is a great systematic way for managers to monitor progress without taking back the work.

How do you get performers to look ahead and identify problems or opportunities before they are too late? Again, build it into your systems. For example, if you are in a business where rates of learning and adaptation are critical to survival, then identify measurable outcomes that the performers must accomplish. Stayer asked his people to come up with a plan for measuring learning and adaptation. The plan was to write down every customer-driven change they made. These data provided aggregate counts -- which were compared to established targets -- but they also provided qualitative data to categorize in order to spot trends.

Additionally, they measured how long it took to make the improvements and spot the trends that could be benchmarked against past performance. The performers had a structure in place that made it easy for them to take responsibility for learning and change -- without wasting time on generalized training programs.

Another system employed to foster innovation was borrowed from the CIA: "scan, clip and review." The logic behind this approach is that many new ideas come from outside one's field, so the manager established a system requiring everyone to read 10 articles per month from periodicals not normally read. From this, he convened a quarterly sharing session of “review cells” that discussed their findings around three questions: 1) What is the future event that will have the greatest impact on our business? 2) What will happen when that event occurs? and 3) What can we do now to prepare for that event? (p. 129). This leads to six-month company reviews where strategy can be reviewed and changes made.

Too often managers try to solve problems by “fixing” the people -- sending them through training or setting them up with new incentive plans. This does not work if the obstacle(s) is structural, and it very often is. It can be far more effective to establish new (or revise existing) managerial systems to remove the obstacles impairing results. It will unleash your performers, and enable them to fly.

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