Why Stuff Fails

There’s a recurring theme on several of the various discussion boards I frequent. ISO, Baldrige, six sigma, lean, performance management…all can be valuable operational process enhancers. Still, too many well-intentioned and much-needed initiatives fail badly. They never get the traction needed to climb the long hill toward sustainability.

Then along comes someone hawking culture, values, engagement, mindfulness, well-being, spirituality. Sensible leaders’ eyes glaze over if they haven’t already. Why?

To think about for starters: when you chase two rabbits both will escape.

Experience Shapes Perspective
Most of my career has been in Operations either directly or in a close supporting role, wandering through the maze of JIT, SPC, LeanSigma, 5-S, 6-S, RCCA and a host of others I’ve mercifully forgotten. Last, I’ve designed various control systems and have been a lead assessor for the ISO9001 and Baldrige models. Detailed because it needs to be clear: I’m not all about the soft stuff only.

On the “people” side I am a practitioner of engagement, change theory, the spiritual side of well-being and other human dynamics practices. I’ve been in the trenches for two major culture change initiatives and several lesser skirmishes, and am a regular facilitator of strategy development, alignment and execution, performance / project management, and other processes that impact performance excellence.

This broad experience shaped my perspective. The people background drives my commitment to engagement and leadership, my process lineage compels me to deliver hard results. There is no conflict when you understand you’re chasing only One Rabbit!

Proposed: doing stuff and producing results is less important than how you act while you’re doing it because the how is crucial to long-term sustainability. People and the soft fuzzies they crave are a vital part of the equation and cannot be ignored.

Performance excellence applies to people and process. You cannot improve one without the other. People fix broken processes, no production process in the world is capable of fixing broken people. People are the one differentiator. Technology can be bought but people and culture cannot be replicated. So which takes precedence?

I’ve turned it over, around and upside down again and it still looks the same: people issues, culture, values—soft stuff—are the key enablers of sustainable success for any initiative and for the organization itself. Still, people issues draw the short straw after the obligatory lip service is out of the way. The mantra:
“xyz initiative requires a cultural transformation, winning peoples’ hearts and minds, commitment and visible, genuine support from top leaders”.

It’s not so bad hearing the chant over and over because it’s absolutely true. What is hard to fathom is why ignoring this truth is so common, so predictable. Put simply: you cannot achieve optimal bottom line results without focusing on “people” issues!

Let’s Demystify and Downgrade the Voodoo
I was addicted to science fiction growing up. Now I enjoy studying really ‘out there’ business and social theory. But personal enjoyment has little bearing on what must be done. My mission: take the right approach to integrating the right soft stuff into the mainstream of running a business, by focusing on maximizing performance excellence and producing hard results. It’s a covert operation, which means killing the spotlight shining on engagement and culture, downplaying their significance. Do the right things the right way by leveraging repeatedly validated enablers of engagement. That does not mean preaching the gospel of engagement. If you don’t even utter the “e” word, engagement will come of its own accord and the right culture will grow, if you enable it.

(Part two, Sustainability in Initiatives outlines a process of integrating rather than alienating)

Engagement is not the high-performance motor that will win the race. Engagement is simply an additive for the fuel that makes the vehicle go down the road faster and longer. Essential, yes: without the right additives the motor will gunk up, bog down and eventually seize up altogether. And you’ll get terrible mileage along the way.

It makes such sound business sense and it’s been validated so many times over the past twenty years that it should be impossible to ignore. But the engagement industry’s approach isn’t conducive to earning mainstream acceptance; we’re guilty of making engagement inaccessible. It shouldn’t be surprising that leaders are paralyzed—we’re sticking pins into their dolls.

Physician, Heal Thyself!
I can say this because I was one of the guilty ones hawking my brand of silver bullet, expecting clients to learn a new language, new tools, new techniques even if the client was already doing basically the same thing by a different name and process and achieving similar outcomes. Demanding that clients become something they’re not.

I was introducing noise into the system, and resistance should have been expected. That’s OK, while we’re at it let’s learn about change management….ka-CHING!

Integrate, don’t alienate! Unless things are really beyond repair, why re-create wheels? Simply check the pressure, re-balance, align, rotate. Don’t buy a whole new set of tires. Lean and six sigma tools and techniques can be seamlessly integrated into nearly any operation. ISO and Baldrige are both highly adaptable and they do not require full implementation. They can be a supplement to counter a specific vitamin deficiency, an exercise regimen to address a specific weakness or train for a specific event.

Still, we’re too often guilty of jumping straight to a heart transplant and we risk losing the patient on the table. Or they elect not to have that scariest of all surgeries and grab onto whatever quality of life they may have left without any intervention.

A Lesson to Learn From Spirituality. I read a beautiful article by a bonafide swami who insisted that yoga was the One True Path to spirituality. I’m not a scholar, but I am an avid student. I feel we collectively need a higher level of spirituality, in some form.

One discussion responder stated that yoga has been linked to demon worship. Not that he believed it, he was just making a valid observation. Perception is reality.

When spirituality or a derivative is linked to a formal practice and especially to religious doctrine, it’s bound to take potshots from purists of another belief system. Intolerance is our heritage dating back to the Inquisition and beyond. The really “out there” fringe cries “demon worship, heresy, eternal damnation!” Look at the current situation—at the fanatics who are terrifying disruptors of global peace and social well being.

I highly respect devoted practitioners of any religion, of any discipline like yoga until they try to drag me down the “my way or the highway” path. What level of “spirituality”? What form of “enlightenment”? What’s wrong with my beliefs? If you don’t like them can’t you just stick to yours? Whatever works for you is great by me, we can co-exist.

Numerous best practices can help individuals discover their own path to spirituality and enlightenment. It’s too individual to assign specifics and labels or prescribe a cookie cutter course of action. Best practices are not exclusive to one discipline or belief system.

The reason for this spirituality sidetrack: any initiative can suffer from the same issues. Think about it, and read the Spirituality section again with that perspective.

(It’s dangerous for me to take this position, because I’m leaving myself wide open to attack by a whole lot of fringe purists from several religions at once. But maybe we can talk about it before we blow each other up)


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