By Jim Clemmer
Professional Services | Bookstore | Practical Leadership Blog
"He who is not prepared today, will be less so tomorrow." — Ovid, Roman poet
Effective learning and capability development doesn't happen just because we want it to. For example, empowering without enabling isn't just foolish, it's unethical. It's like putting a complete novice at the controls of a clunky old airplane and "empowering" him or her to land in the middle of a ferocious thunderstorm. If our organization's systems don't work well, if our skill levels aren't strong, if processes are out of control, if measurements are giving incomplete or false feedback, if communication channels are crossed, or if reward and recognition practices are unaligned, the clearest focus, strongest context, and best of intentions will be wasted.
What's needed is disciplined, rigorous improvement planning. Few things are more strategic than organizational capabilities. Competitors can match or trump capital investments, marketing campaigns, or new products and services. But few competitors have the foresight, discipline, and skill to build a strong and constantly improving organization. By building a highly capable organization — one that's continually learning, growing, and developing — we develop an unmatched competitive advantage. We will be able to move quickly to minimize the threats and capitalize on the opportunities change throws at us. We’ll be in a position to start creating that change.
Continually improving our capabilities calls for coordination and planning. Of course, the goal of planning isn't plans, but action. However, before acting, we need to ensure we're acting on the right things. We need to find the leverage points that will give us the biggest payoffs. We must coordinate improvement activities so everyone's not heading off in all directions at once. We need to ensure everybody sees and acts according to the bigger organizational picture. In other words, we need an improvement plan.
"They know enough who know how to learn."
— Henry Brooks Adams, 19th century American historian
A dim-witted man went to a lazy tailor for a new suit. The first day he wore it, a friend pointed out that the right sleeve was far too short. So he went back to the lazy tailor. The tailor said, "Oh, it doesn't need alteration. Just raise your right shoulder, and then pull and hold the sleeve with that hand." The dim-witted man did as he was instructed, although it caused him to hunch over and walk with a lurch. As he left the tailor shop, he met another friend.
"How do you like my new suit?" he asked. "Very nice," the friend replied. "But, you know, I think you're left pant leg is awfully short." So the dim-witted man headed back to the tailor shop. "Oh, that's because when you lean over to hold up your right sleeve, you pull up your left pant leg. What you need to do is bend your left leg just enough for your pant cuff to reach the top of your shoe." As the man hobbled down the street toward his office, he passed in front of two diners at a sidewalk cafe. "Look at that poor man," one diner said to her companion. "I wonder what happened to him?" "I don't know," was the reply. "But isn't it amazing how well his suit fits?"
We need to beware of pat formulas or off-the-shelf improvement packages. Improvement tools, techniques, and approaches must be customized to fit our unique personal, team, and organizational circumstances. That's why trendy programs like quality circles, excellence, customer service, quality improvement, teams, empowerment, reengineering and the like have failed or fallen short in so many organizations. They're often sold as a one-size-fits-all, step-by-step process that we can drop right into our organization. When that doesn't work, some managers or consultants try to alter the organization to fit the program rather than the other way around.