Posts Tagged management
“In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.”
– Miyamoto Musashi (宮本 武蔵), famous Japanese swordsman (~1584-1645) in “The Book of Five Rings” (五輪書)
The more businesses urgency increases, the more important it is for business leaders and managers to regularly step back and reflect on the 3 cornerstones supporting the development of an healthy organization: the understanding of the overall business environment and related company directions, the appreciation of the company teams situation and the alignment with one self as part of the management team. Answering the questions from this post is a first step that should help any leader to initiate a deeper thinking exercise when and where required.
Download a one-page executive summary here (PDF or JPEG format): Leader Checkpoint: 9 critical questions
As leaders and managers, growing a sustainable organization requires to constantly align the company business, the teams in charge of delivering on the company mission and oneself. If only two of these three cornerstones are in sync, disaster is very probably a matter of time…
More concretely, imagine the result for your company, your teams and/or yourself in the following misalignment cases:
Alignment between Business environment and Self but unsynchronized with Team: As a manager, you are fully motivated and aware of what you have to deliver with which support, with a clear understanding of your company priorities under the given business context, but your teams do no longer understand the company strategy and do not follow on the required organizational changes; key staff attrition increases rapidly…
- Alignment between Team and Self but unsynchronized with Business environment: Under your leadership, your team has reached a high level of maturity leading to strong performance; you have supported its development leveraging with agility on your management strengths and expertise while continuing improving on your weaknesses and you have built a solid relationship based on trust and respect with your team members. Nonetheless neither you nor your team understand any more what the customers expect and how the company is trying to answer to those new needs…
- Alignment between Business environment and Team but unsynchronized with Self: Your company has just identified new trends changing the landscape of your industry and is preparing the necessary organization adjustment; your team gets clearly why a change is needed at that stage but you are already over-loaded and do not know whether you would have the ability to lead an organizational change at this stage while handling in parallel some personal difficulties…
In order to (re)initiate the thinking process on those 3 cornerstones, answer the 9 questions below in the “Practice” section. To some questions, answers may pop instantaneously whereas, to some others, you may stay perplex. In any case, note down your answers; they can be used later as a basis for a deeper study by yourself, with your teams, management or peers. Take the time to run this checkpoint exercise once or twice a year at least (at a time and in a place where you can focus).
exercise 1: Reflect on your business
- What makes your organization unique in the value it delivers to its customers?
- How does your organization anticipate and answer to the forces (re)shaping your ecosystem?
- As part of the management team, what does your company expect you to achieve to support its mission in both a short-term and long-term perspective?
- exercise 2: Reflect on your teams
- If you’d ask each of your staff to explain in 2 minutes what your company position and uniqueness are, as well as what the expectation regarding their individual and team contribution in supporting the company mission is, what would be the result?
- If you had to rebuild from scratch your organization, which of your current employees would you ask to join, in which role and why?
- How does the development plan set for your teams and their members match the individual trajectories?
- exercise 3: Reflect on yourself
- What are your top 3 personal and professional successes and failures over the past 12 months?
- What is the “one thing” that you want to achieve personally and professionally over the next 3 months, 1 year, 3 years, 10 years and how?
- What are the intrinsic or extrinsic conditions that could prevent you from aligning with your company objectives and with your teams?
From your business universe, your teams, yourself, taking time to grasp the context and to understand the situation at hands is what will allow you to set the relevant action plan to support the development of your organization, teams and self on the long run. Running regularly a simple 9-question self-reflection on your business, teams and self can help you to identify areas to study and discuss in deeper details as a next step.
Last Revision: 2015 March 28
“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”
– Henry Ford, US industrialist and pioneer of the assembly-line production method (1863-1947)
Tuckman’s generic model of group development (proposed in 1965) suggests that, for a team to grow from a group of individuals to a performing team, 4 stages are necessary and inevitable: forming, storming, norming and performing. An ultimate phase (added in 1977), adjourning, closes the team development cycle. Being able to identify the current maturity stage of your teams will help you to deploy the relevant approach and strategies to develop them to the next stage till they reach a maximal performance level.
Based on his research into the theory of group dynamics, Bruce Tuckman has proposed a model of group development that asserts that, for a team to grow, to handle and solve issues and to perform optimally, it will go through 4 stages called Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing. Following this last stage of high team maturity, it is very probable that the surrounding environment will bring new challenges requiring to transform the structure in place. The team development cycle will then be closed by an ultimate stage called Adjourning and a new cycle can start in order to build the new team that can tackle those changes.
Obviously, as a leader, it is your responsibility:
to understand in which stage your team operates,
to design the relevant strategies to develop your team till the Performing stage,
to follow-up on the execution of those strategies (including working on the necessary adjustments when and where required).
In the following paragraphs, you will find a description for each stage of the Tuckman’s model and, more importantly, a list of recommendations to help you manage your team within each stage. It is also strongly suggested to couple those recommendations with the use of the PDCA method in order to prevent from getting stuck at a given development stage, thanks to continuous incremental improvement efforts.
- Forming stage
- In this first stage, the team is brought together. At that stage the team is more to be seen as a group of individuals than a real team.
- Each individual will look at understanding his new environment (role, mission, challenges…) and will spend time getting to know his colleagues, avoiding conflict and building new relationships.
- Because the relationship between each team members is usually not yet established at this stage (unless some employees were already working together previously), everybody will strive doing his best to achieve the tasks at hands in an independent manner.
- As a pre-requisite to the team constitution, the manager in charge of building the team must of course be clear on the goals for his team, the role it will play in the overall department mission and/or company strategy. In other words why is the team being built in a first place and what is it expected to achieve?
- Then, the manager will have to be able to assess the progress of his newly-created team and identify how it performs against the objectives: this requires the definition of relevant metrics and Key Performance Indicators (KPI) that will serve as a dashboard. The manager must keep in mind that KPIs are only a tool to measure the progress; it cannot replace himself as the “pilot” in charge of the team and KPIs cannot be considered as objectives as such but are only a measure of the success in accomplishing the mission.
- In parallel to a clear mission statement and metrics, the manager must reflect on the values and attitudes that he wants to promote within the team (encompassing but not limited to the corporate values, if existing). Which behaviours will be supported in the team and what are the ones to be banned?
- On top of the above points, developing a common culture within the team will also require the manager to think about the “language” to use (vocabulary specific to the team / job /product), as well as the supporting practices and structure required to achieve the goals.
- Ideally, the recruitment of talents for the team should not start before the manager has a precise idea of the above points. Moreover, once the team is formed, establishing a Team Charter summarizing the above points and sharing it with the team members is a possible means to set initial expectations. Running frequent team meetings is also key to set the right direction from the beginning.
- The Forming stage is also the phase when the manager should spend quality time with each team member to understand who they are, to identify what makes them ticking, to see how they react to various situations and how they start interacting with their colleagues, peers, customers, providers… Getting to know personally each team member will help design appropriate individual objectives and team goals. It will also be of a great support during the Storming phase to adjust the leadership styles depending on the employee.
- A “leader control” leadership style is usually more appropriate for this discovery stage. It is though important to give space to employees to know each other and to voice their first concerns if any.
- Storming stage
- In a second phase, once the team members have got accustomed to their new manager, colleagues and work, the popping challenges or issues faced by the team will bring competing ideas or views on how to tackle them. In other words, every team member will try to position himself in the team, sometimes creating conflicts or raising divergences on how to handle the various situations at stake (from interaction and team rules definition, to management style expectation or also methods and practices to use by the team).
- Team members will confront their ideas and opinions, using the relationships they have built in the Forming phase. This confrontation can be painful, especially for conflict-averse people, and even destructive for the team if not handled carefully by the manager in charge.
- In the same way, this phase may come as a large source of stress for the manager in charge.
- If not properly handled by the manager, the team may never leave this stage…
- Although a “Leader control” leadership style is more appropriate in this phase in order to keep things under control, the manager should also encourage the exchange of ideas in a constructive manner, arbitrating objectively each situation and focusing on what is required to be achieved by the team. Prohibited behaviours as defined in the Forming phase must be quickly reprimanded if surging.
- Respect of the diversity in opinions and tolerance between team members is what will help the manager to get the best suggestions on the way to move forward while supporting the creation of the necessary bound within the team. For that purpose, the manager should focus on creating relevant team objectives that will foster collaboration (goals that require the unique knowledge and expertise of each single team members to be achieved), identifying possible quick wins.
- In the same way, progress on the individuals objectives should be closely followed up through one-on-one meetings and goals should be adjusted to support both the employee’s personal development and the team’s one.
- As an example, having the individual team members working as a team on the revision of the Team Charter to improve it based on the first observations is an activity that can help fostering a greater team spirit when well-controlled by the manager. A consultative decision-making style works the best for this type of team member synchronization exercise.
- Norming stage
- If well handled, the result of a constructive Storming phase should naturally bring the team to a state where each team member is clear on their accountabilities, working methods, and way of interacting with each other.
- The culture of the team has normally been embodied and the team members as well as their managers are fully synchronized, working in the same direction and focusing on delivering on the team objectives.
- At that stage, the manager of the team should put some more efforts on developing further every single employee through personalized plan.
- Because the team is more mature, the manager can adopt an “employee control” leadership style, giving more space for the employees to improve the team further by themselves. For that purpose, the decision-making process within the team can progressively move toward a majority vote or consensus approach for organization-related matters.
- Nonetheless, because the team is perfectly synchronized, the risk is to see the development of an over-consensus attitude aiming at keeping harmony at any price. Therefore, in this phase, the manager must still stimulate healthy debates and exchange of opinions (even if divergent) so that action plans to develop the team further can be created. Without that, the Performing stage may never be reached. Similarly too much uncertainty or poorly controlled conflicts during the Norming phase (for example due to high pressure conditions) may bring the team back in Storming…
- Performing stage
- The team has reached the ultimate stage of maturity (actually very few teams will reach that stage); it can run independently with minimum supervision or input from the manager. Team members are fully competent and know perfectly how to handle routine; they can also tackle unexpected situations falling in the scope of the team responsibility.
- As an image of a performing team, let’s get a refresh of what is a professional team handling a pit stop in Formula 1.
- The last duty for the manager in charge of the team will be to prepare for the future… If he is promoted thanks to his success in developing the team up to its highest maturity stage, it is then his responsibility to find the best successor and help the transition. If he stays as the head of the team, he needs to anticipate what may come and disrupt the current equilibrium (new technology, new mission, new product, new business landscape, new management…)
- In both cases (a new manager or a disruptive context), the team will go through its last stage, adjourning, because the new conditions or environment will call for a revised structure starting again a new team development cycle at the Forming stage…
- exercise 1: Look at the various teams and departments within your company; in which stage of the Tuckman’s model are they now?
- exercise 2: When you had started in your current role, in which development stage of the Tuckman’s model was your team operating? In which phase is it now? Which actions have you taken to navigate the team from one stage to the other?
- exercise 3: Considering your current team, which further actions can you take to lead them to the Performing stage? In case your team has already reached the Performing stage, how are you preparing the future?
By considering the Tuckman’s model that divides the team development cycle in 5 stages: Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing – Adjourning and by identifying in which stage his team operates, the manager in charge can better define the type of strategy that is required to develop his team up to the highest level of maturity, synonym of high performance. While being clear on the objectives, values and KPIs during the norming stage, the manager needs to set the foundation to handle the difficult storming phase. Adapting to each individuals, promoting tolerance and open, constructive exchange of opinions while showing the direction as a leader should then allow the manager to move his team from the storming stage to the norming one. Having then all team members working aligned with the team mission should not prevent the manager to set higher expectations and identify areas of improvement to reach the performing stage. All team members have obviously an active role to play in moving the team to this high maturity stage. Finally, because most businesses and organizations are by nature volatile, subject to external moving conditions as well as internal change factors, the team will very probably need adjustment; it will be adjourned letting place to the creation of a new structure that will start a new cycle at the forming stage…
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
– Benjamin Franklin, author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat (1706-1790)
In sport, music, theater or many other disciplines, it is obvious that success strongly depends on the time spent preparing for the event itself. With no surprise, the same rule applies to business. In order to increase your chance of success, let us introduce you to the OsCAR framework for power preparation of your most critical, high-stress professional interactions and events.
The OsCAR framework for power preparation is introduced as part of the class “Work Stress Management – the Essentials”
Access the full class here
Last Revision: 2020 June 21
“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.”
– in “Good to Great” from Jim Collins, American business consultant, author, and lecturer on the subject of company sustainability and growth (born 1958)
Several times a day, managers have to take decisions that will potentially impact or benefit their business, customers or teams… What is the best approach between a top-down decision-making approach and a bottom-up one? What are the various decision-making approaches and which one to favor for which situation? This post introduces the four main decision-making methods that shift the balance of the decision control between the leader and to their teams: the unilateral style, the consultative style, the democratic style and the consensus style. This posts also presents the related best practices on how and when to use those styles, depending on the analysis of some key criteria related to the situation at hands (like urgency, maturity of the team, expertise required, fostering engagement).
Download a one-page executive summary here (PDF or JPEG format): Decision-Making Styles: from Leader to Team
Because, in a business world, most of the decisions that are taken will impact the business itself and potentially, through ripple or direct effect, the team morale and engagement, it is key for managers to define and follow decision-making practices that will ensure that the best possible decisions for the business and for the teams are taken for any given situation and that the team fully supports those decisions once taken.
From our observations, efficient managers have often developed the following decision-making habits:
- They assess first if it is a situation where they need to be involved personally or where they can fully delegate the decision-making process to a trusted employee, relying on the existing reporting structure (in that latter case, it is recommended that the manager trains his employees on the content of this post prior to the decision-making delegation) ,
In case they need to be involved personally in the decision-making process, they know the panel of decision-making types that they can use with their relative benefits and risks,
- They understand which decision-making style to pick through the identification of key factors linked to the situation they want to address (such as existing data and facts at hands, urgency, expertise required, operation frame and constraints, what is negotiable and what is not, potential business impact and team impact…)
- They are aware of the main decision-making biases and other heuristics,
- They communicate clearly to their team on the above before initiating the decision-making process,
- They ensure the support and commitment of all the team members once the decision is taken (regardless of the approach chosen)
- They review periodically, during the execution, the outcomes of the decision and assess the level of divergence between the expected results and the reality, often using a Plan-Do-Check-Act approach. They do not hesitate to recognize possible decision errors early enough and bring the team back at the decision table for necessary adjustments.
- They do not shy away from their responsibilities as team leaders on the outcome of the decision, regardless of the method chosen and the decision itself
In order to help managers navigate this apparent complexity, below is a summary of the four main decision-making styles with their respective descriptions, the recommendation when to use them and their related risks. Those decision-making styles allows the leader or the team to have more or less direct control on the decision itself. Note that the scope covered here is for decisions involving or impacting a full team; process and comments for individual decision-making where a single employee is concerned would obviously differ.
- “Unilateral” or “Directive” decision-making style
- the manager takes the decision unilaterally and communicates it to the team
- this style gives the full control of the decision to the manager and usually leaves no space for negotiation.
- It is frequently used by managers with a “leader control”-oriented leadership style
- When to use:
- to use for emergency cases under time pressure but only when the manager possesses the necessary expertise or experience
- to use on time sensitive issues with a junior team lacking experience or knowledge (or under unstable conditions) and when the business at stake is high
- to use when it is a non-negotiable top-down decision where frame and context cannot be openly shared
- Risks and recommendation:
- beware of the “hero leader” syndrome: the exclusive use of this approach by a manager will not support the team development and will quickly create frustration or disengagement from the team members.
- probability of having team members not committing or supporting the decision is high.
- Therefore, once the decision is taken and case closed, it is recommended that the manager holds a debrief session with the team. Topics to cover are: explanations on how the manager came to that decision, open constructive feedbacks from the team, lessons learned on what worked and what could have been better and the steps for the team to learn how to efficiently contribute to similar situations in the future. Obviously, those recommendations do not apply in case of a non-negotiable top-down decision where individual follow-up meeting would then be more appropriate.
- Prior to announcing his decision – and if not time-sensitive -, the manager can “test” it with his trusted partners (manager, peers, HR…) to see their reactions and help preparing answers to possible objections or to seek inputs on how to generate higher support for the team
- “Consultative” decision-making style
- the manager requests inputs to his team members but takes the ultimate decision
- this style allows the manager to have a strict control on the decision while engaging his team members in the decision-making process by seeking and gathering their views and inputs.
- It is often used by managers with a “leader control”-oriented leadership style but also by managers with an “employee control”-oriented leadership style when put under time pressure to decide.
- When to use:
- to use when the manager needs specific expertise that he does not have to decide
- to use instead of consensus decision-making when time is of an essence
- to use to initiate further engagement of an already experimented team that is though not yet mature enough for a consensus approach
- Risks and recommendation:
- if the manager does not explain clearly that he his the ultimate owner of the decision, he may open the door to long negotiations and debates that will dilute his objective of gathering valuable inputs for a quality decision.
- Quality of inputs may be low if objective and frame are not set clearly (what needs to be decided upon, in which timeframe, what are the constraints – budget, resource… – and related room for negotiation…)
- this style is efficient only if all team members are in a position to bring quality inputs, else the manager may create frustration to the less experimented people from the team who can then get disengaged
- for staff whose inputs seem to have had no influence on the final decision, commitment to support the decision may decrease
- recommendation is consequently, as a first step, to have the manager reminding clearly to the team that he is the owner of the final decision based on the various individual inputs and what the framework for the decision is.
- Also, the final decision will have to be provided in details to the team accompanied with explanations on how each input has helped to model the decision (or the reason why some inputs have been discarded) in order to ensure full support on the execution (individual meeting may be required)
- “Majority vote” or “democratic” decision-making style
- the team members and manager provide several alternatives and the final decision will be based on the result of a vote with pre-defined parameters.
- this method shifts the power balance to the team since the final decision may completely differ from the one proposed by the manager.
- It is mainly used by managers with an “employee control”-oriented leadership style .
- When to use:
- to use with a team large and mature enough to conclude on several quality proposals as the range of possible choices for the vote and to generate active participation among the team members on a specific matter
- Risks and recommendation:
- if the team is not large enough, this method can not apply.
- if the team is not mature enough or has not got the necessary experience, identifying the viable options may take a considerable amount of time and discussions. Also the manager needs to be comfortable with all ideas and with the fact that his own idea may not be picked. If the manager ends-up with poor quality proposals, he may have to fall back to a consultative or directive approach which will result in higher frustration for both the team members and their manager.
- if the voting parameters are unclear (majority percentage, weight of the manager…) result may create frustration and disengagement.
- staff whose idea does not win may have difficulties or feel frustration to work on executing the idea of somebody else.
- if the voting is done openly, followers will be inclined to vote for the same choice as their reference colleague or manager, biasing the result
- Thus, managers applying the majority voting method should first make sure that the team has reached the sufficient maturity to bring on the voting table, in a timely manner, viable options that everyone will be comfortable supporting once the vote is made. The manager should also clarify explicitly the constraints / framework to get the various options designed and proposed. Each participant should be given sufficient time to present his proposal(s) with related benefits and risks and process to select options that will be submitted to vote should be clear.
- Besides, the voting method should be presented in details by the manager in order to avoid any misunderstanding (open or closed vote, required majority, weight on the manager’s vote or not, second vote in case of equality…).
- “Consensus” decision-making styles
- All team members with their manager have to build together a decision that they agree to support without any exception.
- This approach lets the team build and support the decision with almost full autonomy
- It is commonly used by managers with an “employee control”-oriented leadership style leading a team that has reached maturity.
- When to use:
- to use with a mature team of experts to create further commitment and engagement
- Risks and recommendation:
- if the team has not yet reached a sufficient maturity, severe conflicts can arise or debates may go too emotional.
- for sensitive topics, the manager will have to turn into a professional moderator else consensus may never be reached. Discussions and debates may turn hot but have to stay constructive…
- if the manager engages himself too much, he loses the position of neutral moderator which may generate frustration among the contributing team members,
- beware of followers who will simply align to their reference colleague or to the manager view; this can biase the final decision through “false consensus”
- all employees will have to comply and support the decision when consensus is reached although they may have prefered a slightly different option. It is the role of the manager to follow-up and to make sure that the decision remains supported at anytime (including by himself)
- Recommendations for managers are here: to make sure that the decision framework has been clearly set, to dedicate a space to each individual to express and share their views and ideas openly (preventing “talkers” to monopolize the debate, “manipulators” to over-influence the followers and followers to silently align even if not convinced). Debates may be colorful but discussion must remain constructive and respectful of every participant at any time; those basic rules must be reminded prior the opening of the discussion. Note that the support of an external moderator may be required if the manager cannot assume the role of neutral moderator.
- Finally, in case a consensus cannot be reached in a predefined timeframe, it is strongly recommended that the manager has a decision-making fall-back plan ready.
- exercise 1: Look at the key decisions impacting your business and your teams that you have taken over the past months.
- Which decision-making method(s) have you favored? Why?
- To which extend have you shared the decision-making method with the team?
- How far were the decisions supported by the team members?
- What was the type of engagement generated to your team by the approach you’ve used?
- If you had to do it over again, would you use the same approach? If not, what would you do differently and why?
- exercise 2: Which decision-making style would you use in the 3 below cases? Why? What are the risks and how would you tackle them?
- You have just been appointed Head of Sales of your unit, coming from the Client Relationship Management team where you had spent more then 3 years. Your understanding of the local market was one of the factors that had supported your promotion to this role. Your Sales Team is composed of one veteran who has been in the industry for 10 years and selling the solution over the past 5 years, one sales manager who moved into the role last year and who had previously worked for 2 years as pre-sales in another unit of the company, a new grad who joined last year and a new staff who on-boarded less than 6 months back coming from one of your main global competitors. It is now beginning of September and you are requested to present to your executive management by mid-November your next year sales strategy and related execution plan…
- Your European-based company provides non-intrusive biometric sensors combined with easy-to-use health care apps suitable for senior people. Your company has enjoyed a steady growth and has just opened a business unit in Japan where the demographic and technology access seems to offer a promising market. The team is composed of a sizeable sales forces, a small local R&D team in charge of proposing new solutions based on the local market specificities and a Service Desk dealing with client issues. Since the inception of the company, 5 years ago, you have built and been heading the European-based Service Desk but had looked for a career development opportunity outside of Europe. Your track record had put you on the top of the list for a promotion as Japan Head of R&D and Service Desk. And here you are. Because of the language barrier, you could not move experienced staff with you and had to build the team from scratch less than a year ago. Today, your Number One customer calls the Service Desk showing signs of extreme dissatisfaction with the way that some of the menus and data from your app are displayed in Japanese and threatens of cancelling the contract. You remember a very similar case 2 years ago when you had introduced a Russian version of your app. The customer is waiting for a call back in the next 30 minutes…
- You are leading the marketing department of your business unit with a team of three people. So far your company has given large autonomy to each business unit to manage their own marketing process leading though to inconsistent practices across the company. Your team members have all been in the company for more than 3 years showing steady performance, except one staff wo was just recruited 9 months ago based on his track record at one of your largest competitor. You are requested to appoint one team representative to work on a transversal cross-unit project aiming at defining marketing best practices for the company…
- exercise 3: Analyze the last time you had fully delegated a decision to one of your team members.
- Do you have clear criteria defined for a full delegation of decision (type of situation, potential business impact / team impact pre-assessment, identified team members for specific decisions, reporting structure…)?
- Why have you decided to delegate in this specific case?
- How far have you explained the framework and context related to the situation to decide upon (timeframe, budget, resource, information and data at hands…)
- To which extend are the team members you’ve delegated decision authority to familiar with the concepts of this post?
- How have you followed up upon the delegated decision?
- What were the specific challenges?
- What would you do differently next time you delegate a decision?
Obviously, taking wrong decisions can easily bring businesses down or destroy teams’ morale and staff engagement. Developing effective decision-making habits becomes therefore critical for managers. Assuming that the manager in charge has to personally get involved in a decision-making process, his first step should be to identify what is at stake and the context surrounding the situation: timeframe for the decision, possible impact on the business and on the team, specific experience or expertise required, available resources, team maturity, desired level of engagement of team members, risk of unsupported decision, possible decision-making biases. Then the manager should identify the most appropriate decision-making method, considering whether he prefers the team to drive the decision as much as possible or whether he prefers to be the sole owner of the final decision. As sole owner, the directive style has the merit to deliver a quick decision-making process suitable for urgent situation with high business at stake and where expertise is available at the manager level. Alternatively, if specific experience or expertise is required, the consultative approach will efficiently support the manager by helping gathering the necessary inputs from the team, increasing de facto the involvement of the various team members. A Majority-vote style shifts the decision authority balance further to the team who then have to come and vote for a viable option with their manager. Finally, for mature teams, consensus decision-making will very probably bring the highest level of commitment and support. It is though to be noted that each one of those styles presents risks depending on the situation at hands. It is thus the responsibility of the manager to appreciate the benefits and risks of each of those decision-making styles, to keep in any case accountability over the decision agreed upon, regardless of the process used and to request for justifiable adjustments whenever required.
Last Revision: 2015 March 28
“Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.”
– Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known under his pen name Mark Twain, American author and humorist (1835-1910)
As part of the famous “Kaizen” (改善) practices introduced to Japan post World War II to help the country reconstruction, Deming advised among others a simple technique, the Shewhart cycle, more commonly called the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle, in order to improve company processes in manufacturing, engineering and business management. Since then, the PDCA cycle (also called the Deming Wheel) has frequently been used as a management best practice to support the continuous improvement of systems and organizations. This post summarizes some recommendations for each phase of the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle.
Download a one-page executive summary here (PDF or JPEG format): Continuous Improvement: the Deming Wheel (PDCA)
Because the performance of the companies we work for is highly dependent on the quality of their underlying systems (understand “system” here in its broad meaning of a set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole, from a production chain to a sales process, an organization structure or a business strategy), changing those for the better becomes an obvious objective for any business leader.
Before initiating any PDCA cycle, there is a very first important step, sometimes referred as the “Observation” phase, which simply consists in identifying what already rolls with very little waste or friction in your organization, from what partially runs but could be optimized further, from what does not work at all. Beyond performing your own study or referring to external auditors for this phase, and because improving a system for a better performance should be everyone’s responsibility, at all level of the organization, the best place to start is often with your direct teams, peers, providers and customers. Here are two simple methods to engage your teams in such a discussion:
Run a risk exercise with your teams: ask each of your team member to list the three main risks that they may think of for the team / department / company by answering specifically to the four points below.
- What is the fact or else the specific condition at the origin of the risks?
- What are the consequences from this fact or conditions?
- What is the impact for the team / department / company
- What are the possible risk mitigation plans? (Usually, the more specific the answers to the first three questions are, the easier it is to identify mitigation action plans)
Here is a concrete example of risk exercise:
1. Fact or specific condition: the weekend support activities initiated 4 weeks ago for the release X are prepared individually by each implementation engineer on a customer-by-customer basis, without minimum notification timeframe being requested to the client.
- in the past 4 weeks, 5 change tasks lists out of 6 regarding Release X were prepared last minute (with less than 48h notice) and were not consistent across the team (4 different task lists out of 6), making it more complex and time-consuming for the four-eye check by the Service Desk,
- in total, 8 employees came on the weekend for those 6 changes in the past 4 weeks where it could have been performed by 5 engineers through scripting,
- 1 employee has been identified at risk because of too many weekend work activities.
3. Impact: high risk of operation mishandling implying potential reputational impact and client business loss and increased cost for weekend support and four-eye check, staff turnover due to repeated weekend activities
4. possible mitigation plan: implement a process of weekend work validation at the team level, involving senior staff and Service Desk to identify common framework and intervention and possible scripting activities
Ask each of your staff what they think they should start / keep / stop doing, why and how? In order to get to the bottom of your staff comments and answers, make sure to ask probing questions.
Moreover, while grasping the current situation of your company and listing the priority of what you want to improve first, make sure to understand as well the interdependency between each system you analyze: you may find some simple systems with very little interactions with other parts of your company but you may also discover complex core systems, systems of systems involving various subsystems and that are highly entrenched at all level of your organization. In the latter case, keep the following two basic points in mind:
- “Great” must not be the enemy of “Good”. If you tend to be perfectionist and face a complex system to improve, you may not be in a position to find the direct final perfect answer! And even if you do so, you may face difficulties in identifying where to start. Don’t freeze there… Even very complex systems can usually be divided in smaller subsystems; breakdown your issue in smaller problems that you can more easily grasp and tackle. The PDCA cycle is also thought to run iteratively to improve on the long run, in a continuous manner. Go for some small incremental steps and several iterations of the cycle to ease the approach of large complex systems. You will then become “Good” to become later “Great”! It will also give you the flexibility to modify your approach if needs be.
- “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French writer, poet, and pioneering aviator (1900 – 1944)
Following this first observation phase, you and your team now know what you want to improve and are all together ready to push the Deming Wheel on the Kaizen road, rolling through the four following phases: Plan, Do, Check and Act.
- Plan: Regular Project Management best practices can easily apply here. In a nutshell, our recommendation is to “go slow to go fast”! The more you prepare your project execution upfront, the less risk you have to fail and engage in expensive corrective actions in the “Act” phase. You will find below a non-exhaustive list of items you may want to check to help preparing your plan.
- write a simple one-liner mission statement that you can share easily
- specify clearly and precisely the desired outcome and related deliverables
- define the metrics, Key Performance Indicators (KPI) and Measure of Success (MoS)
- identify a unique project owner, the project team, the related stakeholders and a potential sponsor
- precise the project milestones, beginning, end and dependencies
- list the required resources and means to ensure project completion (resource, technology, training…)
- in case of structural or organizational change, anticipate and remove resistance by ensuring project buy-in (through proper communication plan, proposing a pilot step, identification of quick wins…)
- Do: the success of your system improvement will rely as much on your planning as on the rigor of your execution. The key word here is to make sure that accountability around the various project tasks and activities is clearly defined.
- look at your task breakdown and ensure a single person is accountable for the execution, reporting to the project owner
- have the project owner running regular progress update review, asking for binary answer on the task execution for high-level progress overview (Is the task closed or open? If not closed, is it started?)
- update your sponsor and stakeholders on the project progress (and faced challenges) and seek for feedback in order to confirm the direction (especially in volatile project environment), share the feedbacks with the project team and explore blocking issues for alternative solutions
- communicate project updates accordingly to remove further resistance to change
- Check: This analysis phase consists in studying the obtained result. Have the goals and objectives been met? If not why? What are the root causes? This phase usually encompasses the below activities.
- compare obtained results and project outputs against the initial specifications and project MoS defined in the “Plan” phase to evaluate the project performance
- identify deviation from the plan, success and failures and their related root cause (the 5-Why technique can be used here to help getting to the root cause of an item in parallel to asking penetrating questions)
- run the lessons learned from the “Plan” and “Do” phases making sure to highlight possible improvement areas for future cycle iterations
- Act: Based on the outputs of the “Check” phase, you should be able to easily identify what to adjust in order to get closer to the expect results defined in the “Plan” phase and to deduct the related possible corrective actions. You are then ready to start a new iteration of the PDCA cycle. But before that, also make sure to close this cycle by communicating your achievements to your sponsor, stakeholders and any other parties involved in this project as well as by providing the project team with feedbacks on their performance and by describing the next expected steps for the coming cycle (whether the same team will get involved or not in the next cycle).
- exercise 1: Run the risk exercise described in the “Observation” phase by yourself. Then run it as well with your direct reports. Are they common items raised by yourself and by your staff? Which priority would you set for each of the risk (High/Medium/Low)?
- exercise 2: Run the “start/keep/stop doing” exercise described in the “Observation” phase by yourself and then with your direct reports. Answer the same questions as the ones from exercise 1.
- exercise 3: Pick one high priority item from exercise 1 or exercise 2 and prepare on paper the “Plan” phase of the PDCA cycle. Which difficulties have you encountered? How would you overcome those difficulties, should you start the PDCA cycle in reality?
In order to improve the performance of a company, it is a common practice to improve its underlying structure, processes and other system components using a Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) approach. Once areas of improvement have been selected and prioritized through a preliminary “Observation” phase, the PDCA technique (also known as Deming Wheel) promotes a continuous improvement approach by running iteratively through a 4-stage cycle. First, The “Plan” phase of the cycle allows to define precise goals and measures of success while requiring as well to bring all risks and dependencies upfront for a greater efficiency in execution. Then, the “Do” phase is the place for project execution, reinforced by clearly defined ownership and accountability for each activity. The “Check” phase is the time of analysis, focusing on analyzing the difference between the obtained results and the initial objectives as well as the related root cause. Finally, the “Act” phase proposes to define the corrective actions and possible adjustments based on the “Check” phase outputs and closes the cycle while preparing for the next cycle iteration. Embedding this very simple PDCA method in your company practises will help to initiate the virtuous circle of continuous improvement through small, tangible, incremental steps, leading to enhanced performance with each single iteration.
Last Revision: 2015 March 28