Leadership and dogs look very different worlds with few common points. Well, they are certainly different things. Leadership is a very serious thing and training a dog has little to do with leading a person but, is there anything that dogs can teach us about leadership? Do dogs behave at a certain point like humans? The answer is YES. So, what lessons can we learn from dogs about leadership?
1. Give immediate feedback: Dogs can only associate an action and its consequence if one comes immediately after the other (no more than 5 seconds delay). This is the way they learn, through a mechanism called operant conditioning. Operant conditioning also works for humans. It is true that humans can associate more distant cause and effect relationships, but only at a certain point. The more immediate the feedback, the higher effect you’ll get.
- Tip for humans: Dogs don’t mind if they are corrected in public, but people prefer receiving negative feedback in private.
2. Be consistent: You can drive a dog crazy if the same action triggers a very different consequence: “chewing” on their toys is great but “chewing” on your shoes is wrong. It is difficult for them to understand why the same thing (“chewing”) drives such a different behaviors on us. We must help them perceive the small differences that make each situation unique. Humans are more intelligent and capable of seeing “these little things” that can completely change the circumstances, but we need anyway a consistent response to our actions. If receiving feedback is welcome today and makes you mad tomorrow, nobody will know how to work with you.
3. Don’t punish, reward: Dogs can learn using punishment, but learning is more fun, lasts longer and creates less frustration if you use rewards. Punishment must be the very last resource and is acceptable only if the life of the dog is at risk. The same applies to humans.
4. Teaching takes time and patience: A teaching session with a dog needs preparation (environment, tricks), time (patience, calm), a clear definition of success and persistence (repetition with progressive difficulty). People needs pretty much the same things:
- have a clear training goal: define the purpose
- prepare the session: what do you need?
- patience and time: things generally don’t work the first time
- frequent repetition setting the bar higher each time
Some days ago I was at a meeting where we were discussing how to improve a process. The process team members and the team leader said that they felt ultimately responsible [sic] of the process performance and requested more authority to test their ideas and do changes. This proposal is very well aligned with Lean principles like:
- Involve front line in improving their work
- Promote learning through repeated practice in solving problems
So we scheduled a meeting to present the idea to the area director and define how to give the team more freedom to try things and learn. To our surprise (well, not really), the area director refused to do so. Her arguments were “I want to keep control because I’m ok with delegating, but not with abdicating”. Off with their heads!
This situation is easy to find. Not every manager is ready to move from the classic thinking trio: “command and control” + “experts own improvement” + “compliance at any cost” to Lean management principles. The presence of these ideas is a very good predictor of problems during a Lean transformation, so please beware if you hear things like “control”, “this is too risky”, “do whatever it takes” or anything similar.
However, the area director was right in some way. How? Managers have to delegate and stop telling people what to do. Telling people what to do takes away responsibility from the person. But managers still have a job in Lean:
- Ask questions that provoke the right thinking
- Understand problems by observing the process (at the gemba)
- Challenge, enable and remove obstacles for workers while they are solving problems
In other words, “abdicating” in the sense of disappearing from the gemba, asking nothing, hiring Lean experts and asking them to do the improvement work for you, ignoring the process, avoiding coaching, etc… IS NOT AN OPTION. If we use the classic RACI matrix, managers must move from Responsible (do everything, take all decisions) to Accountable (make sure things happen, help those doing the job). Follow this Wikipedia link to the RACI matrix for more information (link here).
And now, a very important final warning:
Middle managers are a common source of problems during Lean transformations. They are typically hard to convince and, when they try Lean, it is not unusual to see them go back to classic thinking after some days / weeks / months. Why? It’s a “delegation” problem.
Lean transformations usually start at the gemba: operators, analysts, technicians… those people whose boss is a middle manager. Middle managers learn how to empower their people and give them freedom to try and learn. But the boss of a middle manager is a director, who has never been exposed to Lean and still uses the classic “command and control” style. Long story short: the middle manager feels he has lost power/influence/capacity because decisions are taken either by his people or his boss. He might think he is not useful anymore and might be fired. This situation is extremely dangerous for the Lean transformation.
That’s why education and communication are so important in Lean. Directors must be trained in Lean and know what to expect. Managers must have the opportunity to explain the Lean transformation at their area to their bosses and the new way a great manager looks like with Lean. This is REALLY critical for Lean success.
This is an old story (2009) I read many years ago but it is still valid and I keep using it very frequently to explain leadership and how cultural change works. It is a video by Derek Sivers, there it goes:
My main conclusions are:
- Leadership means being ready to stand alone and look ridiculous to many.
- You must be easy to follow: easy message, clear ideas, be public.
- You are not a leader until you get your first followers: treat them as equals because new followers will follow previous followers, not you.
Keep that is mind because one day:
- You will get momentum.
- Following you will not be risky anymore.
- Change will happen (learn more here).
The video finishes with the most important idea of all: if you find a crazy person doing something great, have the guts to be the first one to stand up and join in! Following others who deserve it is another way of leading, maybe the most important.
Many blogs shared this video before, here you have some: