In Business, focussing on Discipline is often seen in a negative light, a way of controlling people and limiting both their personality and creativity. However, in my view the critical factor is whether the focus is on driving discipline in Processes or in applying discipline to people.
To explain, consider as just one example the ineffectiveness of a large proportion of meetings, where it is not uncommon for people to arrive late, unprepared and for a significant proportion of the meeting to be unproductive, resulting in an ineffective meeting. If we try to solve this problem through the application of increased discipline on our people, we are unlikely to make any long-term improvement, as we will encounter both passive and active resistance as we 'tell' people how to behave. However, if we countermeasure the root causes of the under-performance and instead focus on reducing the inhibitors and increasing the promotors of effective meetings, we take a process approach to engendering discipline and will engage our People in improving the process of meetings. This may be, in one sense, nuance but will result in the creation of a standardised, effective meeting culture in the organisation, driven by the People who make them work.
Athletes and Sports Players are a great example of this and in the book Focus the example is given of those great Quarter Backs (American Football) who are credited with being able to 'see the field'; which is actually due to their thousands of hours of practice, which pays back the return on investment through being able to utilise the low cognitive energy part of their brain. This is true in all areas of life where we want to perform at the top end of the spectrum, whether it be, for example, American Football, Golf, Marketing, Public Speaking, Painting or Ballet. Whatever we want to be good at, we must standardise and then have the Discipline to continuously practice the standard.
To illustrate this visually, take a look at this 54 Second video clip of a Tennis Rally between Federer and Djokovic:
This is a fantastic rally and what you will see is that they undertake a lot of it utilising their low cognitive energy, playing well practiced strokes that they must have played thousands of times in practice and in earlier matches. However, at around 42-43 Seconds, Federer uses his high cognitive energy to play a shot that Djokovic cannot adequately respond to and he wins the point. Contrast this to how you would observe amateurs playing Tennis, where a lot of the strokes would be in what we might term 'Fire-fighting' mode, as they play the majority of their game in a state of high cognitive energy.
Bringing this back to Business, it is therefore essential that we set up our Business Processes in a standardised way and act with the Discipline required around them. Only when we do this will we allow ourselves the time to adequately focus on making the break-throughs in performance that are necessary to be the best at what we do. The challenge is that most of us spend our time in perpetual 'Fire-fighting' and that some Organisations actually promote People on their competence as a Fire-fighter, therefore reinforcing this culture within the organisation. Ironically, working in a culture where Fire-fighting activity is the norm will mean that our People will become highly skilled at it and will become almost robotic in this approach.
What we therefore need to do is break the habit of Fire-fighting and start to celebrate and recognise those people who utilise Disciplined, Standardised approaches to Problem Solving and Process rigour to prevent problems recurring and free up the time to improve the business. To paraphrase Albert Einstein:
"Managers Fire-fight problems; Leaders prevent them"
To do this requires us all to behave differently and for the Leadership to take up the challenge to drive the Transformation that is required in the business. This takes Individual and Organisational Stamina and a Change Leadership approach that is consistent and long-term in its thinking. However, what is most important is the mindset in Business towards Excellence.
Whilst we would expect the performance of Artists, Musicians, Sports Players and Athletes to improve, and we observe advances in how quickly they develop, we would never expect to see one of them performing at the top of their chosen profession without thousands of hours of practise over many years.
"That being the case, why do we expect to take short-cuts in developing our Businesses to be World Class without putting in the Disciplined Practise that it takes?"
We somehow seem to expect that there are formulaic approaches that can be applied and 'bought-in' to short-cut the years of practice required to become excellent in the areas that the Business needs to be excellent in. This doesn't mean that we cannot learn from others and transform faster than others have down before but what it does mean is that we cannot abbreviate the process to the extent that most businesses do and must invest the time to consistently execute on the Transformation plan.
At this point I think that it's important to clarify that this Standardised and Disciplined approach to Business Processes does not mean that we won't improve them or that we don't make step changes when necessary. We must also create a culture of Continuous Improvement (Kaizen Culture) that delivers multiple small, every-day, improvements leading to large improvements over time. Combined with this, through Policy Deployment (Hoshin Kanri) we will make the step change improvements that are required where Continuous Improvement won't suffice.
Once again, we can use the Sports World as an analogy, with the example of Tiger Woods. When he had reached the limits of success that he could master with his 'tried and tested' Golf Swing, he controversially decided to transform it. He effectively took his Golf Swing out of the Bottom Part of his Brain, up to the Top Part whilst he 're-programmed' it and, slowly but surely, through hours of practice, his new swing moved into the Bottom Part. This was a step change improvement that Continuous Improvement couldn't have brought him.
We therefore must realise in Business that Transformation takes time and therefore we must get the balance right between the Continuous Improvement and Step Change activity and that, in both cases, the ability of the Organisation to maintain Discipline over the long-term is going to be the difference between success and failure.
This is where Discipline becomes Competitive Advantage.
There are many Lean Leadership Books out there but I have reviewed those that I think are of most use on my Book Recommendations page, or alternatively go to Amazon.com. The book, Focus, by Daniel Goleman may be found at this link.
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"I aim to promote the global sharing of best practices in the application of Lean Thinking."