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Off With His Head!

Off With His Head!
 Off with their heads!!! Courtesy of Heather Wizell.

Criticism of the Veterans Administration hospital system over the revelations of massive failures brought about the resignation of retired General Shinseki last week. Traditionally this is the well-trodden path for political leaders and corporate boards to take when such incidents occur, especially on a national stage. When viewed dispassionately, however, how can a single individual rationally be responsible for a breakdown in a huge system? In local government, it’s easier to make a connection between the leader and the mistake and argue that they should have addressed systemic failures. Embracing lean management might argue for setting a slightly higher tolerance bar for mistakes.

John Shook, Senior Advisor, Lean Enterprise Institute, writing in 2008 described lean management thusly:
Traditional management places tremendous pressure on individuals to be right. … You must have a Solution, must know The Answer. Exposing problems, developing countermeasures, and learning from them doesn’t just support lean management; it is lean management.

Should you fire a person who makes a mistake?

I suppose the correct answer is “It depends.” But I’m going to argue that exposing the mistake fits right into the lean management cycle and provides an opportunity. It’s what you do about it that determines whether you’re practicing what you preach. If you simply terminate the person, whether a leader or anyone else in the organization simply for a mistake, you send the message that innovation and its inherent risks are not worth taking. Early in my career, the mayor of the city where I was city administrator made this comment: “If you’re not making a mistake then you’re probably not doing anything.” To him a communication failure was more damaging than a mistake. He applied the same principles in his own successful food processing business, implementing a forerunner of lean management long before the term had entered our lexicon.

This viewpoint was recently reinforced in a SmartBlog on Leadership post by Jennifer Miller:  “A leader with fortitude looks beyond the mistake and placing blame, to the bigger picture… so that all parties… learn and perhaps even come out stronger in the end.”

Fixing the problems at the VA will take a lot more than new leadership but the current crisis begs to be compared to so many opportunities to exhibit “courageous leadership” at the local level.

Update: This premise is underscored by a recent article in Governing magazine entitled "You Can't Manage a Secret." In it, the author contrasts the atmosphere at General Motors that contributed to the cover-up of the ignition switch defects for years with the management openness and candor that Alan Mulally has successfully introduced to the Ford Motor Company. There you're not criticized for having a problem but are encouraged to bring it to the management team and contribute to the solution.

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Photo of Lynn Nordby

About Lynn Nordby

Lynn’s public sector career included over 30 years in local government management and experience in virtually all municipal services including the operations of a wide variety of municipal utilities. He is now retired.