Leading sometimes means getting out of the way
I recently read a story that reminded me how authentic leaders need to make sure the organization is going in the right direction, but they also need to give people the freedom to think differently about solutions.
The story comes from the book, Start with Why, how great leaders inspire everyone to take action, by Simon Sinek. In it, Sinek tells the story of some American auto manufacturing executives who took a trip to meet their Japanese counterparts.
On a Japanese assembly line tour, the American executives noticed that the Japanese car builders put the doors on their hinges, just like the American car builders do, but there was a step missing. The Americans had someone with a rubber mallet strike the doors at the end of the process to ensure a precise fit. When the American executives asked why the Japanese car builders didn’t require this step, the Japanese executives said it wasn’t necessary. Their response was illuminating:
“We make sure it fits when we design it.”
Sinek noted the story provides a great metaphor for how many organizations were being run at the time: if something doesn’t go as planned, a series of tactics were often created to resolve the issue, rather than giving the team the freedom to make a change earlier in the process. Many of these issues have since been resolved with Lean processes like root-cause problem solving which, of course, have their beginnings in Japanese manufacturing.
The story is a great reminder for leaders that problems don’t always require a separate solution and that we need to give our teams the freedom to find the best solution, no matter where it might be in the process. And employing this kind of mindset can have significant benefits.
Not only did the Japanese team not have to employ a mallet striker (or buy mallets, for that matter), their cars also had tighter-fitting doors, which meant a quieter ride and better durability. So, by allowing the team to address a potential problem at the outset, the Japanese leaders also made their product less expensive, longer lasting and of higher quality.
That’s what I would call a great return on investment.