The Middle Manager

Surviving & Thriving as a Leader

Building a Path

I’ve always been a big fan of Walt Disney.  He accomplished so much, and always had a positive outlook on life.  My family vacations to his theme parks at least once a year (it helps that we live in Florida), and I believe they are second to none when it comes to understanding and pleasing their customers.

There’s an interesting anecdote that I’d like to share from the book Designing Disney, by John Hench.  Mr. Hench was one of the founding “seven old men” who worked closely with Walt on his films and in the design of the parks.  His recollection shows us how Walt’s mind worked:

When Disneyland first opened, we embarked on an ongoing learning process about our guests and how they respond to a story environment.  For example, just after the park opened for business, we discovered that some guests had made a pathway through a flower bed.  We were walking through the park one morning before opening when the gardeners came up to Walt and said, “We need a fence to keep guests out of the flower bed.”  Walt told them, “No, we must pave this pathway.  When guests make their own path, they probably have a damn good reason for doing it.” (Designing Disney – Imagineering and the Art of the Show 2003 Disney Editions USA: pg 30)

John and Walt may not have realized it at the time, but what happened at that moment is a wonderful example of process improvement.  We can learn a lot from this simple example.  It shows that improvements are often just common sense – what’s the best or shortest path from one point to another.  Remove the barriers and see what happens.  Can we apply this same logic to how we do things where we work? 

In order to identify the best path, you need to ask the right questions of the right people.  In Walt’s case, the customer was clearly defining what they wanted.  He recognized the opportunity, removed the barrier and met the customer’s needs.

Do you feel there are barriers that prevent us from doing our best?  Are there times you feel frustrated, or see that our customers are frustrated?  Do you see opportunities for reducing costs?

I’ve mentioned before the importance of listening to your staff, that soliciting their feedback to find areas for improvement is vital. 

Why? Because as managers, we typically have a high-level understanding of how our processes work.  Most manager’s think they know, the senior leaders think they know… but the reality is the ones who actually know best how your processes are working, if they’re actually being followed, are all of the people who are ‘in the trenches’ actually doing the work and trying to make these processes work.

So talk about it!  Close the door and no subject should be off-limits, no legitimate concern should be ignored.  Allow everyone to vent frustrations and identify obstacles, and make sure everyone has an opportunity to speak up.

At the conclusion of the sessions, compile all the feedback and concerns you’ve received and use it to identify opportunities for improvement.  Then do your best to keep everyone informed of what improvements you’re working on, and take what’s learned to make a positive change in how you do things.

Here are a few suggestions for basic topics for a brainstorming session:

Process Improvement concepts
A Day in the Life of a support tech/analyst
How do we increase efficiency?
How can we improve our tools?
What barriers keep you from being productive? 

Remember, our goal is to knock down fences and create new, better paths!

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