Thoughts on Influencing Leadership

Thoughts on Influencing Leadership

Over the course of my career there have been several situations where I was brought into a company to improve quality or productivity. In some of those cases, I would go so far as to label myself the ‘Lone Wolf’ in the organization. Here I do not mean the definition of a Lone Wolf as a very independent or solitary person. I’m thinking more along the lines of being the only person who understands and applies Lean Six Sigma.

Let me tell you – it’s a tough road. Entering a new company where you understand what few others know – the potential of what can be accomplished with LSS – has plenty of challenges and frustrations. To a degree this is true for anyone applying Lean Six Sigma. We talk about this in our Green Belt and Black Belt courses. I go so far as to compare explaining the benefits of LSS as somewhat akin to trying to explain the beauty of a rainbow to a blind person. Now, I’ve never tried the latter. But I can only imagine how difficult it would be. As I said, a tough road.

Now, back to the challenge you will face in applying Lean Six Sigma as a new Green Belt or Black Belt. In many situations you may feel like me – the proverbial Lone Wolf. How can you get buy-in for your team’s ideas? Put more simply, how can you influence leadership? You don’t have the power. You don’t have the authority. Many times, key stakeholders are at a higher level in the company. Sometimes they are in a completely different department. What to do?

What if I said it’s a matter of learning how to communicate? Keep in mind, effective communication is not easy. And the most common source of problems at organizations large and small is poor communication. Bottom line: Influence is dependent upon effective communication.

For example, let’s say I am trying to convince a shop floor team leader to make changes to a process. What must I do? Simple. I must speak in terms that matter to him or her. This means I must first seek to understand: How is that person measured by their boss? Does their boss care about increasing orders shipped per week? On-time delivery? Customer complaints? Finding out this information is of critical importance. Then you can build a case as to why your LSS Project will help accomplish that goal. Again – communication is key.

Is it so different for those in C-suite positions of leadership? It’s not. Are more orders per week really their concern? Sure, but only indirectly. You must know your audience. Upper-level management speaks in dollars. Why? Because that’s how their performance is graded. Profitability. Cash flow. How much money did we make last month. It’s not to say that upper-level leaders don’t care about units, defects, etc. It’s simply that those figures must be turned into dollars.

Imagine taking a new project idea to a front-line leader with the potential to increase productivity by 50%. There is a good chance that individual will jump on it. But take the same project idea to a person in upper management, he or she will ask, “What’s it going to cost?” Why the difference? The front-line leader is graded on output. The upper-level leader, graded on profitability. The typical plant manager wants to make sure a $150,000 improvement project doesn’t cost $200,000 to complete.

In addition to understanding the needs of your audience, and using the right language, there are other keys to effective communication. Put differently, influencing leadership is not always just about money. There are other considerations.

Recently I asked a good friend who is a VP at his company: “As a high-level leader in your organization, what are three things you need from your team to convince you to buy-in to something new?”

His response:

  1. A clear, concise, 1-page summary of the idea explaining what was proposed, timeframe, required resources, and expected benefits. Basically, a well written project charter.
  2. Passion for the idea when it is presented, including a commitment to own it from start to finish.
  3. Risk Assessment with an honest appraisal of potential failure modes and their effects on the business.

I believe this is sound guidance. Think it through. Know your audience. Collaborate with others to get varying perspectives that can help you see different vantage points—don’t go it alone. And let your passion for the project shine through. Although I am a big believer in data, I also know from experience that managers will respond to emotions.

Lastly, as it pertains to Lean Six Sigma, you may need to educate. As discussed in an earlier blog, knowing LSS tools is not enough. There must a culture that is ready for change, or at least desires it. There must also be governance…and leaders must fully understand the benefits – and risks – associated with continuous improvement. Meet leaders on their level. Lone Wolves can build a pack…they just have to know how to attract others.