How Command-and-Control Sabotages Continuous Improvement

Command-and-control and continuous improvement - calvinlwilliams.com

Command-and-Control organizations are built around principles of efficiency, speed, and execution. On the surface, these sound like good qualities of a Lean organization as well. After all, Lean is all about eliminating waste, right? It makes sense that once leaders figure out what activities constitute wastefulness, they could simply command all employees to stop doing those behaviors and start doing things that management deems to be more efficient. And that those who fail to comply should be “coached” into compliance. However, subscribing to this way of thinking transfers power to managers and away from their subordinates, who perform the value-added work that the customer is paying for. And with that power transfer goes creativity, innovation, motivation, and all other things that are needed to create a thriving culture of Continuous Improvement. To restate the question: Can Command-and-Control and a Culture of Continuous Improvement Coexist? The short answer to this question is no. The long answer is – its complicated, but no.

Why Command-and-Control Kills Continuous Improvement

In essence, Command-and-Control is the kryptonite of Continuous Improvement. It values doing things right over doing the right things, conformance over creativity, and efficiency over effectiveness. It siphons power from the bottom and feeds it up to the top. It drives behavior through fear and manipulation instead of genuine desire to do good. It is founded on a few assumptions,  one being that the manager knows best what needs to be done and others should be subordinated. It views the organizational relationships as authoritative and not collaborative. The purpose of Lean is to continuously increase value to the customer. Value is created on the value stream; so logically, the people closest to, or working on, the value stream have the best understanding of opportunities for improvement. While a manager may have a more macro (high level) point of view over the end to end business system, the people who live with value stream issues day in and day out are probably going to understand the issues at a deeper level; thus, putting them in position to develop more optimal solutions for their area of ownership. Although leaders are in a better position to drive system-level improvements, in a Command-and-Control culture, many of them are too busy micromanaging their employees to step back and look at the system. Leaders and their teams should work as partners to optimize the business with the intent to bring the greatest possible value to the customer.

Another assumption in a Command-and-Control culture is that the manager’s role is to enforce the rules and employee performance is an assessment of compliance. Those leaders who are trying to instill a Continuous Improvement culture using command-and-control tactics are operating as if creativity and innovation are a privilege of upper leadership and all others should simply obey. In this environment, subordinates display obedience out of fear – with the hopes that one day, they’ll be rewarded with the authority to create an innovate, or actually use the right half of their brains at work; or just keep their jobs for a little while longer.

In contrast, the aim of Continuous Improvement is to accelerate a company towards its objective, which is ultimately to win in the markets they serve. This usually means keeping customers and other stakeholders happy. This cannot be done without considering the competitive landscape in which the company operates. In order to win in the market, your company must have 2 things going for it: 1) be more in-tune with the market and the customer’s perception of value and 2) be able to change to better meet the needs of the customer.

The challenge is that corporate managers, especially as they ascend higher up in to the organization, become more and more detached from the value stream – making Command-and-Control more convenient for the leader but less optimal for everyone else, including the customer. Instead, companies should seek to more directly connect those doing the work on the value stream to the consumer. Then empower them to innovate to better meet the needs of the customer.

Imagine 2 scenarios:

  • One manufacturing company has the marketing research function working directly with shop floor operators
  • The other company has multi-layered, silo’ed, hierarchical organization where the people working the value stream have a very weak signal from the actual customer and vice versa.

Which one do you think has the strongest competitive advantage?

In the latter scenario, shop floor operators are effectively rendered dependent on their managers for guidance, who often also have no clue which direction the market is moving, especially if there isn’t an effectively strategy deployment process in place. To take the former scenario a step further, imagine shop floor leads and operators engaging directly with customers to brainstorm ideas for improvement. This would require an incredible shift in power to the people working the value stream – and for leaders to become support resources, coaches, and facilitators – as opposed to commanders.

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Why the Relationship Between Command-and-Control and Continuous Improvement is Complicated

This is an especially difficult challenge large companies who likely compete on efficiency. They tend to identify products that can be sold to the masses and then build the business machine to produce these things cheaply and in large quantities. They are not designed to be flexible to the needs of the market but to be great at making a thing and controlling the market through pricing, messaging, and other incentives. For a business built on this model, efficiency is king. These are not playgrounds for the creative and innovative, but more like a platoon of highly disciplined troops, whose slightest display of disobedience could mean life and death for the entire troop, and possibly the loss of the war itself. These companies are not good at capitalizing on opportunities, but at protecting the status quo and position that they have enjoyed for so long. Often these companies are being cannibalized by their own size and slowness, making a Continuous Improvement a struggle to grasp and sustain.

In a CI culture, empowerment of the people is paramount. Empowerment requires leaders to relinquish some of their own power to engage their teams to a higher order. This means employees at all levels get to bring both halves of their brains to work everyday and put them to good use for the company. An organization where only leaders are allowed to practice creativity and experimentation is inherently going to make much slower progress than one where all employees are fully engaged to create, initiate, and innovate. In competitive markets, companies that are both in-tune with customer needs and capable of rapid innovation will dominate in terms of growth and talent acquisition. Those that promote leaders based on strict obedience will perpetuate a cycle of stagnation, slow growth, and ultimate demise.

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