Manufacturing AUTOMATION

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Sharpening the saw


October 24, 2014
By Paul Hogendoorn


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Oct. 24, 2014 – Many years ago, I read Steven Covey’s landmark book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I have read many other good books since that time, but this one still stands out as a foundational book for me, especially as I consider the roles in my life where my abilities as a leader matter.

This past month, I attended a two-day Global Leadership Conference with the specific purpose of practising the seventh habit that Covey identifies — the habit of “sharpening the saw.”

Covey’s point was that a wood-cutter that stopped regularly to sharpen his saw would cut far more wood, with far less effort, than a wood-cutter that never stopped cutting. The same principal applies to leadership. We can get a lot more done if we take regular breaks to hone our leadership skills. But stopping to sharpen the saw takes discipline and intention, and it’s so easy to get caught in the trap of believing we are too busy to slow down, let alone stop for a break. That’s the paradigm that most of us live in. We know better, but we continue to cut the wood with a dull blade.  

One method I use to make sure I do the things I know I should do is to commit to them when they are six months away. It’s easy to say yes to events that won’t happen for awhile; it’s progressively harder to commit to taking time out for those same events as the time draws nearer. The reminders come in, the event is on my schedule, the invoice is paid, and for those reasons I go. After it’s over, I’m glad I did.

There were many messages at the conference I needed to hear; some were new and some were things I needed to be reminded of. It would be impossible to try to summarize even a few of them, but here are four key points that most resonated with me: 1) Leadership is a choice, not something you were chosen to do. 2) Leadership skills need to be learned, practised and refined. You are not simply born with them. 3) Leaders change the order of things. And 4), the highest calling of leadership is to unlock the potential in others.

These four points cover the whole spectrum of leadership in our manufacturing world. Let’s start with the third one — leaders change the order of things. All of our continuous improvement efforts are really just seeking to do just that — change the order of things to try to make them better. The ideas don’t just come from the CEO, plant manager or lean team leader; they need to come from everyone involved. Everyone, from the operator onward, has the potential to be a leader, and this speaks to the first point — leadership is a choice. Choosing to participate in the process of making things better is choosing to be a leader, regardless of your position or title. Conversely, supressing constructive changes or growth activities, or choosing not to encourage them within your organization, is choosing not to be a leader, even if your title identifies you as one.

The second point speaks to our potential effectiveness as leaders. Just because we are choosing to be leaders, and trying to be leaders, doesn’t mean we will be effective leaders. There are certain skills that are critical to leaders (the ability to communicate, for instance), and these can be learned and honed, and need to be continuously improved upon.

The last of the four points may be the most important of them all, and it resonated with me the most. This past event, I invited two younger members of my team to the conference with me, believing that I will soon be passing the torch of leadership to the next generation. I came to the conference already believing that the highest calling of leadership is to unlock the potential within others, but now I think I understand it more clearly. It’s not just the people next in line on the organizational chart that have leadership potential — the ability to change the order of things — it’s everyone in the organization that chooses to try. We as leaders have to strive to unlock all of this potential in these people, or if our companies are too big, to create an organizational culture that does. Can you imagine what our companies and organizations might be capable of if everyone saw themselves as leaders?

When we look at thriving and prevailing organizations today, we often attribute their success to the qualities and attributes of their leader. But if we look closer, we will usually see the leader has developed a true culture of leadership that permeates the entire organization. Doing this kind of leadership right is a mammoth job that will take all the imagination, dedication, time and energy that we can pour into it. To succeed, we need to make sure we make time regularly to sharpen the saw.

This column originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.