Can You Let Go?
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

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-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


Can You Let Go? by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine November 2002

Well, it is that time of the year again. If most of you are like me, you are beginning to look forward to next year and the possible improved performance results that it will bear. Hopefully, you are also identifying the systems changes that will help you, or others in your organization, obtain those results. One question that usually comes into a person's mind when they are considering increases in performance is “How do I need to modify my management style to help ensure that these results are attained?”

There are of course a lot of schools of thought to reference when attempting to answer that question. The classic definition of a leader states that you should “plan, organize, direct, and control” in order to get the results you desire. More recent progressive management approaches, such as those recommended by Dr. Stephen Covey, suggest that all you need to do is make sure that each employee clearly understands what the desired results are, provide them with the support necessary to get those results, and ensure that the consequences (non-punitive of course) are also clear.

I, as you might have guessed, favor the latter tactic. We are, after all, working with adults who should be capable of self-management if they are given a clear path to follow. Unfortunately, we often fail in two key areas when we are attempting to let people know what results we are after. First of all, we often fail to describe a balanced set of performance expectations. Secondly, we also often fail to act on a daily basis in manner that is consistent with the results we said we wanted. One of these failures is enough to take us off track – together, they will lead to unexpected and undesired results.

You can read up on balanced scorecards or benchmark companies that say they are using them in order to help you put together a balanced set of expectations, or you can simply use common sense. I have tried both approaches, and I have found that the common sense angle is usually a better use of my time. My teams know that I am looking for certain levels of performance in four key areas – people, quality, cost, and safety. They can describe the two or three key metrics that I look at in each of the four areas. They also receive daily performance feedback in those four areas.

For example, for the “People” performance area, we look at unexcused absences and tardiness. In the “Safety” area, we track the number of medical only and lost time accidents from an OSHA reporting perspective. The key however is that I expect good performance in all four areas, and not just in one or two. Many companies make the mistake of primarily focusing on efficiency, because that is the way they have done it in the past and it seems like the easiest thing to track. As most of you know however, quality, morale, and even safety can be compromised if we focus too much on this output metric.

We usually cause greater damage however when we personally fail to behave in a manner that is consistent with our expectations. We can hold the ‘kickoff' meeting and use fancy graphics to state our desired results to our people, but what will actually happen during the other 364 days when we are actually out there trying to get these results? If push comes to shove, will we compromise our quality beliefs in order to make sure a customer receives their shipment on time? Will we ask people to continue to perform a borderline unsafe act to make sure that the month-end numbers come in below goal?

Through our daily behaviors, we let our people know what we really expect from them and how we expect them to do their jobs. The questions that we ask each day of our people sends strong signals about how much we trust them, what we think their personal skills and abilities are, and the degree to which we are really willing to empower them to get the desired results on their own, as compared to ‘directing' them towards those results. The types of decisions we are willing to let our people make by the hour also reinforces our expectations, whether they match those that we stated in the formal meeting or not.

The mantra should be “I do not care how you do the job as long as you get the desired results.” Can you imagine yourself saying this and feeling comfortable about it? The answer really depends on how much you trust your people and how well you have defined a balanced set of expectations. I have known many people that more than balk at this statement. Some would call it irresponsible management and others would call it just plain crazy. The irony is that it works if you can let go.

Letting go does not mean that you sit in your office all day. Letting go does not mean that you don't pay as much attention to the daily numbers. I believe that you have to spend time with your people in their ‘world' in order to better understand their headaches, barriers, and needs. They must have performance feedback daily, and not just from a report posted on the bulletin board. Saying ‘thanks' for specific types of behavior is one of the best ways to reinforce your expectations and give people feedback.

Letting go means that you don't have to physically stand over people in order to get the job done. Letting go means that you are willing to let them try their own experiments, move things around, and do things a little different than the norm, as long as the desired results are met. In other words, you are willing let them make their own decisions without second guessing them, scrutinizing their work with an overly critical eye, or saying ‘I told you so' if something does not work out exactly right. When you let go, you become, and behave, like a different type of manager.

We would like to think that all we need to do is write detailed procedures and punish people if they fail to follow them in order to make sure our results are achieved. When we think this way however, we are forgetting that we work with human beings who can think on their own. We are also making the very dangerous and erroneous assumption that we will be able to catch every procedural violation that occurs. Since that is not physically possible, I think you see the fallacy in this way of thinking.

If we are clear and balanced in our expectations, if we support our people in helping them to make system improvements, if we give them regular and meaningful feedback, and if we personally behave in a manner that is consistent with our expectations, our people will attain and exceed the results we have defined. After all, we would not want to be guilty of trying the same things and expecting different results would we?

Keep improving!!

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