Who Will I be Today?
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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

“Learning cannot be disassociated from action.”

-- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

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-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


Who Will I be Today? by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine October 2001

Each morning when I arrive at work, I think about the type of leader I will be at work that day. Over the years. I have watched a lot of different leaders in action, learned about several leadership philosophies, and practiced different leadership styles. Some people would argue that one's personality dictates a particular style, but I don't agree. We make a lot of conscious decisions that determine the leadership style that our workers perceive.

Being an Industrial Engineer enhances the variety of leadership styles that are available for my use. I have practiced both quick changeover techniques and micro motion time study skills. I have learned about ergonomics, cost analysis, and job design. I can analyze a person's work down to the tenth of a second or the penny of a dollar.

Conversely, I have also been exposed to and practiced a variety of skills that fall into what some people call the 'soft side' of management. In many cases, these interpersonal skills fly in the face of the more traditional industrial engineering skills, especially if one chooses to practice them strictly by the book. Sure, there is a balance between the extremes that we should seek to find, but it's also true that different workplace situations call for different styles of leadership. Each day I have a choice regarding the type of leader I will be.

Often, I am challenged to select this style as soon as I walk in the front door of the plant. Maybe I see one of my people in the break room. Has he clocked in yet? Is he taking advantage of the fact that managers often come in much later than the front line workers do? Is this an opportunity to reduce my daily labor cost per hour by asking "Have you clocked in yet?" Should I ignore the question altogether in the hope that I will build a trusting relationship with this worker over time?

There is a constant struggle between wanting people to do things by the book, in a consistent manner, and in the most cost effective way possible versus letting them make their own choices, prompting them with questions, and hoping that they make good decisions. Which course of leadership will I choose today?

We know how to improve the processes we are entrusted with. What we don't know are the possible ramifications of trying to change the way people behave on the job by reprimanding them, demanding they do the job 'right', or even writing them up if they refuse to comply. What has a greater impact: building trust and empowering others, or enforcing all of the rules as they are written? What types of beliefs and systems have to be in place in order for trust and empowerment to really work?

The attraction of being a short-term hero in the eyes of my superiors constantly plays against what I feel to be right. I could watch my people like a hawk, challenge them whenever their behavior deviates from the desired norm, and do my best to force them to do their jobs the way the work instructions dictate. On the other hand, I could let them do what they want, trust that common sense, pride, and good training will prevail, and hope that they'll do the job in a high performance manner.

These are the two ends of the leadership spectrum. Each day we have to find our own place on that spectrum. The challenge is to be consistent and fair, as we are essentially serving two masters: upper managers and the people whom we supervise. Can we satisfy both?

I have established my own beliefs about how to resolve some of these dilemmas and find the balance I am looking for. First, never tolerate poor performance in order to be perceived as a nice guy, since this will ultimately upset the team, hurt your numbers, and undermine your credibility over the long term. Second, questioning, coaching, and trust go a lot further than demands and threats of write-ups do. Third, involving the team in making system improvements will contribute more to the bottom line than using substandard performance on the part of your people as an excuse for you not meeting your own performance goals.

If you have people who report to you, you are faced with these questions and challenges each day. If you have been trained in performance improvement techniques such as lean manufacturing, this challenge will be even greater. What kind of leader do your workers perceive you to be? Are you consistent, or does your style shift with each meeting or problem that comes up? Are you able to be the leader you want to be even though you might not work for someone who practices what you believe?

There will always be a need to reduce costs, improve quality, work more safely, and treat people with respect. In most cases, you will have to rely on the behaviors of other people to help you achieve your own performance goals. To find the answers to these and similar questions, look inside of yourself. What kind of leader will you be today?

Keep improving!!

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Last Revised - March 2, 2015
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