Think back to the restaurant mess we talked about a few pages back, who was responsible?
The lesson for grown-ups (and more importantly executives and business leaders) from The Boy Who Cried Wolf is that the boy was at fault when he lied the first time, but the person who was really responsible for the sheep being lost was the shepherd who left his flock with a boy who he knew couldn’t be trusted.
After the first false claim of a wolf, the boy should have been told the consequences of lying about a wolf. After the second false claim, he should have immediately been removed from his position as “wolf-holler-er”.
The responsibility of the flock’s safety was on the shepherd, and his failure of judgement on the people he delegated that task to resulted in the loss of his flock. In the shepherd’s period of zero self-ownership, the shepherd lost his business, the boy lost all respect and the townsfolk lost their food. At least the wolf made out well though!
One of the interesting things about self-ownership is that it doesn’t have to be as impressive as saving the town’s sheep from a wolf. It frequently is demonstrated through seemingly meaningless changes that snowball into big wins, which is something I know about first-hand.
I was working with a consulting client years ago, we were hired to fix one of their production lines. Long story short, after six months of our effort the line was producing 40% more than when we got there. This is a huge win, something that can be the difference between keeping a factory open and everyone losing their jobs, so I was very proud of that turnaround.
Once the problems were solved, we went on to help other clients until a few months later I received a phone call from the man responsible for the line. He asked “What can I do to turn this line around in the next five days?” In the world of manufacturing, that short of a timeline is code for “I’m drowning as we speak.”
We flew out there immediately and started walking the production floor, and within seconds I’d diagnosed the problem.
Walking around, there was trash on the floor. There was a forklift who’s fork was high enough to hit your shins on (or trip and fall, while carrying material). The rejected product bins were overfilling, which stopped the line from moving forward. I saw maintenance issues that anyone off the street would know were wrong, much less someone with his experience.
He was more than happy to brag about the good things they were doing, what his strategy is and a dozen other topics that realistically didn’t even matter. Finally he asked me what my opinion was.
I told him the truth: the leadership he needed wasn’t insightful strategy, complex formulas or sophisticated diagrams.
It was to actually claim ownership of the line.
He walked passed trash on the floor, and didn’t pick it up. He didn’t say hello to a single machine operator. He didn’t help the employees struggling with their work. He didn’t tell any employees to empty the reject bin so the line could get started again.
He saw the line as a machine of X goes in, Y comes out, instead of a series of connected people, machines, and processes that he is responsible for.
When a leader walks past trash and doesn’t pick it up, it’s sending a clear message to the other employees that trash on the floor is acceptable. When a leader doesn’t acknowledge the production staff, not even saying hello, they understand that they’re replaceable cogs in a machine, not someone who might have profitable ideas for the company. As anyone in business knows, the most important and honest conversations start with “Oh, by the way…” By not starting those conversations yourself, you never give your coworkers and the people who report to you a chance to add that little phrase in.
The massive drop-off in production after we left was that the new man in charge refused to claim ownership over the line, and it fell into the state that you’d expect.
Instead of engaged employees hoping to bring the next big idea to the table, he got the mindless cogs that he treated them like and the resulting levels of production that mindless cogs produce.
He didn’t take my response well, to say the least. In his mind, those dozens of small details that meant nothing to him, were somehow actually my fault. It may come as no surprise, but he’s no longer running that facility.