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I’ve always thought of myself as a pretty good operations leader. In fact, I’m sure the people that know me well are smirking because I said “pretty good”.
Let’s be honest, I’ve always thought I’m d*** good. I’ve managed three manufacturing plants, each with 400+ employees. At each plant, I was able to achieve significant improvements in productivity and reliability metrics. I managed the day-to-day operations at the Navy Supply Corps School and received recognition as the Instructor of the Year. My Supply Department on the U.S. Navy fast attack submarine USS ASHEVILLE won the Blue “E” for the best Supply Department in Squadron 11. I’ve always counted those achievements as evidence that I really understand what it takes to lead and achieve superior results. But recently, I stumbled upon some data that has me questioning everything I know about being a leader.
I’ve always thought the formula for successful operations leadership was straight forward.
I’m not alone in my thinking on this. Heck, I got this formula early on in my career from leadership icons like Jack Welch and books like “Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done". But a few weeks ago, I was confronted with some data that has me seriously questioning this formula.
My company recently sponsored a roundtable for Oil & Gas executives in Houston. This was an intimate setting with twenty or so VP and above O&G executives where they could discuss the most critical issues they are facing while leading their organizations to achieve Operational Excellence. One of the topics for discussion was the role of culture in achieving Operational Excellence.
To facilitate this culture discussion, we asked each of the executives to participate in a culture assessment using yardstyck. Yardstyck is WP&C's web-based culture assessment tool that allows a company to benchmark its culture against that of a High-Reliability Organization (HRO). The process has participants force rank different descriptors of organizational culture from those "most like" to "least like" their company’s current culture. The process is then repeated, having them force rank the descriptors based on what they think the culture “should be like”. WP&C has performed this process on HRO’s like the U.S. Navy’s submarine force, so we are able to show participants how their responses compare. Below is a screen capture from yardstyck so you can see what it looks like.
At first glance, I was very pleased with the data I saw from the executives. Largely it confirmed a lot of my hypotheses. The data clearly said that executives believed they needed to have a culture like that of an HRO, but that there was a pretty substantial gap between where they are (the red circles) and where they want to be (the yellow circles).
This was good news for someone whose business it is to help them close that gap. But when looking at the details I saw something that concerned me. So much so that it even made me begin to question our model. The O&G executives had ranked the statement “be results oriented” as third highest in their assessment of the current culture. What is more, they indicated they wanted even more of it by ranking it number one overall in the future state. Then I noticed “be results oriented” wasn’t even in the top ten for the U.S. Navy Officers who had taken the assessment. In fact, it was number 24!!
This was shocking to me because personally, I would have ranked "be results oriented" near the top too. Remember my formula for operations leadership success? Clearly results are really important!
What did this mean? Did this mean the Nuclear Navy is invalid as benchmark for the private sector? After all, I was sure someone would point out that the submarine force doesn’t have to worry about profit and loss and quarterly financial results. Maybe there was a lot to learn from the Nuclear Navy, but there were some things about its culture that just don’t apply in the business world. Maybe our model was flawed.
Then I Realized The Model Was Right & I Was Wrong
Having served on a U.S. Navy Submarine, I knew that results were important to my Commanding Officer and the rest of the leadership team. Maybe they just were not important in the same way. Maybe results weren’t the end all be all of management and leadership.
Then I had an epiphany and I realized I heard this message before—that results weren’t the most important thing. I heard it from another leader and organization that is the very definition of success in its industry; an industry which is hyper competitive and extremely focused on results. In fact, in this industry, if an organization isn’t performing at the highest level, the leader will almost certainly be fired within a year or two. As much as it pains me to say it, this leader and this organization have clearly been the best at what they do for almost a decade. I say it pains me because I’m talking about Nick Saban and the University of Alabama football team (I’m a UGA grad. Go Dawgs!!). For those who live under a rock, Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide have won four of the last seven national championships. Clearly over that time span, Saban has achieved the “results” that matter. But listen to what he has to say about what he and his leadership team focus on.
“Well, the process is really what you have to do day in and day out to be successful,” he said. “We try to define the standard that we want everybody to sort of work toward, adhere to, and do it on a consistent basis. And the things that I talked about before, being responsible for your own self-determination, having a positive attitude, having great work ethic, having discipline to be able to execute on a consistent basis, whatever it is you’re trying to do, those are the things that we try to focus on, and we don’t try to focus as much on the outcomes as we do on being all that you can be." - Nick Saban
So there you have it. It isn’t relentless focus on outcomes that leads to sustained superior performance. It’s a focus on the process and the culture. Nick Saban said it. The officers in the U.S. Navy know it. And I guess now I know it too.
Results are Still Important
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that what I learned from all this is that I can ignore results. Nick Saban didn’t say that, and neither did the Navy Officers. The Officers didn’t rank “be results oriented” dead last. They ranked it in the middle. Nick Saban didn’t say ignore results. He said “we don’t try to focus as much” on them. Results are clearly still important. They are how we measure the effectiveness of the “process”, or what we at WP&C refer to as the management system, and the culture. While we absolutely must step back periodically and use the results to evaluate the effectiveness of our management system and culture during periodic management reviews, we shouldn’t manage to results on a day-to-day basis. What we should focus on daily is adherence to the management system and culture. Clearly this is a challenge in public companies where there is a relentless focus on quarterly reports to analysts and investors. But the data says that if you want to have sustained superior results, if you want to be a High-Reliability Organization, then you need to focus on the management system and culture.
What do you think? Where should being "results oriented" fit on your organization's ranking of cultural traits? The top? The middle? The bottom? I'd love to hear your thoughts? Please share them in the comments!