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It’s Okay to Question Your Own Thinking

I once worked with a group of supervisors in a 70-year-old manufacturing company. This group had never (ever) been involved in any way with decisions around the strategic intent of the company. Then…one day…the company hired a new General Manager who had a personal vision of continuing to grow the productivity of this company. Easily identified were quality problems at every turn that had never been addressed. Customer complaints were a common theme. They were so common, in fact, that the people within the company just accepted it as a part of daily life. Their solution: We’ll just fix it (which they would always do). For years, “We’ll just fix it” was their solution. It was their motto. Of course, the domino effect was in full swing: They were consistently behind in fulfilling orders, frustration was abundant (for employees as well as for their customers), quality wasn’t improving, billing was delayed, finger pointing was rampant, solutions to real problems didn’t exist, people were in a constant state of chaos, overtime was a way of life, and more. Their Brand Promise Guarantee was clearly meaningless and wasn’t even on their radar screen. What surprised the new GM the most, though, was that this type of thinking (“We’ll just fix it”) had always been okay with them! (This GM’s story is in a book I’m in the process of writing, so stayed tuned to learn more about this turnaround story…)

With time, the GM was able to help create much higher levels of efficiency. But the corporate culture of this manufacturing company was still in the dark ages. Their thinking remained bound by the past. Quality of output had improved drastically, but behind-the-scenes things weren’t improving (which the GM knew would cycle back around and impact the quality of their product once again.) Supervisors were still identifying with command-and-control leadership; demeaning someone was supposed to motivate them; yelling was common. The question the GM began asking them was: Is that really how we want to deal with our problems–“We’ll just fix it”?

It was a journey but what this GM did over time was to create a culture of understanding around how to effectively lead people toward higher levels of performance…toward higher levels of  sustainable quality…toward higher levels of job satisfaction…and more. In short, he and I worked together to create a Corporate University Program focused on strategic leadership that taught these core supervisors to challenge their thinking about their own actions and around their own assumptions (such as, “We’ll just fix it.”)

The first time I met with this core group of supervisors they looked at me as if I were an alien. Never before had they been asked to challenge their own thinking about how to be an efficient organization. Never before had they been asked about how effective they were as leaders (relative to the organizational results they were supposed to attain.) Never before had they been challenged to think differently about their quality problems or their leadership style.

The development in this group of 20 supervisors was no less than amazing. They created a BHAG (Vision Statement) that I share in numerous presentations as an example of how far a team can come once they learn to challenge their own thinking. To this day, they’re one of my favorite groups. They went on to drive this organization toward higher levels of performance that many of them (and their direct reports) never once even dreamed about.

And they did it all because they dared to challenge their own thinking.

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