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Akhilesh Gulati

Quality Insider

Don’t Rein In Radical Thinking

Published: Monday, March 10, 2008 - 22:00

As a manager, one might imagine being a rider atop a horse. You cannot expect to force the horse to win by constantly pulling the reins, neither can you expect to win the race consistently by pushing the horse beyond its capability. The rider needs to influence its performance to win the race; after all, the horse is much stronger than the rider. “Half the failures in life arise from pulling in one’s horse as he is leaping,” state Julius and Augustus Hare in Guesses at Truth (Macmillan, 1882).

How does this apply to our organizations? We can think of the horse as our workforce and the potential it has to produce extraordinary results. We often find ourselves frustrated as we push people to produce results, trying to stay on top of daily issues, controlling, directing, complying, and making deliveries. Other times we provide incentives to achieve more and then pull in the reins just as the workforce is ready with new ideas.

Organizations have realized that to achieve extraordinary results their employees must show initiative, collaboration, enthusiasm, teamwork, and problem-solving skills. They, therefore, increasingly provide training in various tools and techniques as they find ways to achieve more and succeed (or survive) in today’s competitive world. Approaches such as quality circles, total quality management, benchmarking, Six Sigma, and lean have become popular. However, they soon fade into oblivion as initial successes become stagnant or fail to deliver the expected results. There’s often not enough of an incentive or drive to implement the techniques learned. As employees start brimming with ideas and get enthused about the results they could achieve, they run into roadblocks—conflicting priorities, internal politics, budget or time issues, and management resistance to real change. Pulling in the reins just as the horse is leaping does not allow the horse to overcome hurdles and win the race; it creates confusion and can lead to the horse and the rider getting hurt!

During a recent visit to a client, I noticed that a manager was enthusiastic about reducing waste and defects through the use of lean Six Sigma methodologies. The success of the initiative resulted in a promotion for him and a desire by other departments to utilize similar tools and techniques. Although employees elsewhere in the organization were skeptical of such initiatives due to prior bad experiences at other companies, this case encouraged them to reconsider their reticence. They identified projects that positively affected the bottom line, improved customer responsiveness, and increased employee morale. T hen just as employees began embracing these new directions, political unrest and conflict within the management ranks derailed the initiative. In addition to denying any changes, they refused to consider project proposals. This, of course, went against all the principles the inspiring manager stood for. Talk about pulling in the reins just as the horse is leaping! And we wonder why organizations fail to make progress and why employees are skeptical.

Pulling in the reins gives managers only control, not necessarily success. Managers achieve success by making it possible for their workforce to perform well and must recognize that their success is due to the actions and subsequent results of their employees. This means that they need to hire stellar employees. To have exceptional employees, the key is to grow and mold current employees, to build on their existing skills, and allow their environment to encourage them to produce extraordinary results. With the right attitude, motivation, training, and support, people will be given the tools and the opportunity to perform well. One can lead a horse to water, but can’t make it drink. The horse will drink on its own if you let it. Don’t pull, let them leap!


About The Author

Akhilesh Gulati’s picture

Akhilesh Gulati

Akhilesh Gulati has 25 years of experience in operational excellence, process redesign, lean, Six Sigma, strategic planning, and TRIZ (structured innovation) training and consulting in a variety of industries. Gulati is the Principal consultant at PIVOT Management Consultants and the CEO of the analytics firm Pivot Adapt Inc. in S. California. Akhilesh holds an MS from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and MBA from UCLA, is a Six Sigma Master Black Belt and a Balanced Scorecard Professional.