For this series about the crossover wisdom between work and life Ted Stiles talks about learning to lead through trial and error, paying attention to root causes and seeing the big picture. Ted is a partner and vice president at Stiles Associates, a retained executive search firm. In addition to filling senior-level positions, Ted helps his clients understand how to build a lasting lean transformation and leadership infrastructure. He speaks about leadership at industry conferences and is a frequent guest lecturer at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.
Track What Matters. Be Transparent and Inclusive.
I’ve had a huge opportunity to learn from experienced lean and operations thinkers who I’ve met and interviewed over the past 12 years. After a while you start to see patterns, particularly when talking to them about their second or third runs at implementing a lean management system, and trying to unlearn top-down, command-and-control leadership behaviors.
As a firm, we have learned from these individuals while trying to help improve the performance of our own operations at Stiles Associates. We have a tremendous amount of variation and resistance to standard work. After pushing standardization with limited success, we decided to start tracking and sharing high-level delivery metrics (lead time and other indicators of productivity).
We now have a visual management board in our office and share weekly metrics with the team. Simply doing this let us have a better understanding of what is actually happening in the operations and where we need to focus and provide support.
We also stopped pushing standards and asked the team to help address the performance gaps via value-stream mapping and kaizen events. This helped us realize that certain things we had always done were non-value-added. For instance, we discovered that writing long, expository candidate reports were not valued by our clients and created an unnecessary burden on our team to produce.
It is all a process of trial and error but along the way we’ve had better overall results and more valuable conversations as an organization about the barriers to continued improvement.
I am sure my wife is tired of me asking, “What is the problem you are trying to solve?”
Problem Solving: What’s the Root Cause?
One of the concepts that I’ve brought into my other relationships, certainly at home, is root cause. Before trying to fix something you need to slow down and ask, “Do I really understand the underlying source of the problem?”
I can’t tell you how many times that lesson has been reaffirmed for me. The problem is almost never what you think it is. It’s hard to have patience, slow down and really understand what’s happening and why. I am sure my wife is tired of me asking, “What is the problem you are trying to solve?”
Share the Big Picture and Empower Your People
We spend a lot of time trying to break down silos and keep the team and the work-streams visible and connected. It's not an easy task with a team that is largely remote. We have weekly calls to keep everyone appraised of critical assignments, A-player candidates on the move, and overall firm activity. This is in addition to the weekly reports that track our high-level delivery metrics.
This big picture activity is not only for these team meetings. We also try to make sure that within the context of each assignment we empower the directors to really understand what the client’s problem or need is. If they don’t understand this, how could they identify the right candidate? We challenge them to do this and also empower them go see the client, get out on the manufacturing floor or the hospital frontline.
Introducing these concepts into our own organization has been a gradual process over the last several years. Along the way we have had some healthy turnover and we now have a team who works well together, delivers great service and handles more volume than previous iterations.
I am an independent leadership and management writer, editor, researcher and journalist. For the past ten-plus years (wow, has it been that long already?) I have helped business leaders and companies tell powerful stories.
Sign up to receive updates when we post new interviews.