The Middle Manager

Surviving & Thriving as a Leader

Left Face!

I recently read an interesting example of “the way it’s always been done.” A few years ago the Queen of England was taken to a demonstration of the country’s artillery corps. There was a line of shiny modern cannons – artillery pieces – along with the sharply-dressed five-man gun crew.

When the order to fire the guns was given, there was the usual activity of loading, aiming, and firing the cannons. This work was carried out by four of the five soldiers manning the gun crew. The fifth soldier simply executed a very snappy “left face!”

This baffled the Queen. She asked what that soldier was doing and why. The answer? “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” Nobody actually knew why, so some research was done to find out.

It seems the practice dated back many, many years, to when cannons were pulled onto the battlefield by teams of horses. Back then, when the order to “fire!” was given, the fifth soldier would turn to the left and grab the reigns of the horses to keep them from bolting when the cannon fired. Over time the Army moved to a mechanized environment, but the old ways continued because, “That’s the way we’ve always done it!”

The moral to the story is clear. Over time, as processes mature, there is always a better way to get things done. The challenge is constantly questioning the current state, dreaming of a better future state, and believing in process improvement methods to get us there.

As a company grows, it is not unusual for it to begin as a very localized, site- or region-centered environment and mature into a distributed, remotely managed customer support organization. This can be a real a paradigm shift, with very different processes – and it is rarely a smooth path. An interesting result from this type of growth is that support ratios often radically change, and not always in the way one would expect. Where I work, we actually saw the number of staff needed to support a given census decrease, because we were able to leverage technology and automation in lieu of hands-on support.

But we don’t just stop here and say, “We have a new way, and the way we do now is the way we’ll always do it.” As an organization matures and evolves, we want to actively pursue ways to do things better, leveraging both remote and local technical staff in the most efficient way possible. This is where an active process improvement program is beneficial.

One of the simplest ways to identify areas for improvement is to simply ask questions. Give you staff the opportunity to provide critical feedback on the way things get done, and as a manager, listen to what they have to say. Be objective, and don’t let the status quo get in the way of making a change. Set up a suggestion box, and allow anonymous submissions. Reward employees who show the initiative to speak up and offer good ideas.

Changing the way things have always been done benefits not just your immediate team, but can show real cost savings or improvements to customer satisfaction for the business.

All it takes is a willingness to listen.

Tell me what you think!

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